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County scrambles in wake of utility buy

After striving for decades to purchase the Florida Water Services utility in Spring Hill, county officials are now faced with the burden of ownership.

With the liquidation of $36-million in investments, Hernando had instant cash on hand and snatched the utility Thursday, hours after a judge rejected a condemnation bid by the city of Weeki Wachee.

Moments after that decision, Circuit Judge Daniel Merritt endorsed Hernando's rival condemnation offer, finding county ownership a benefit to the public.

County attorneys say taking ownership swiftly was necessary to thwart potential appeals by Weeki Wachee. The rush of events that led to Thursday's emergency meeting of the County Commission and the seizing of the utility brings to an apparent close years of legal battle.

Now, it's details, details.

Does the county have accounts to accept revenue from the system? When will the county take hold of ratepayers' billing information? And the vehicles _ does the county repaint them with its seal? When will Florida Water employees be asked to toss their uniforms aside and don ones that mark them as Hernando County Utilities Department workers?

To these and hundreds of similar questions, the county has few answers. But the staff is working hard to make progress under the leadership of assistant county administrator George Roussos.

Roussos heads a transition team whose members include, among others, Utilities Department director Kay Adams, assistant county lawyer Kent Weissinger, human resources director Barbara Dupre and utilities and franchise administrator Chuck Lewis.

Roussos said the utility purchase was expected to be accomplished through a sale agreement the county had with Florida Water that was separate from its condemnation fight with Weeki Wachee.

Though the transition team has been meeting and preparing for months, the quick condemnation victory has changed the landscape, Roussos said.

"There is going to be a flurry of activity," he said. "I have got a list of things, 13 pages of items with target dates and who the responsible party is."

As of late Friday, Roussos and the team were still developing a transition service agreement to be approved by the county and Florida Water.

Many crucial steps, such as what elements of system management the county will take responsibility for and when, as well as a framework for the physical integration of the county system with Florida Water, should be detailed in the agreement.

The County Commission is to review the document Tuesday.

The goal of the team, Roussos said, is to make the transition seamless so that service to the utility's 33,000 customers is not disrupted.

"I live in a Florida Water area," Roussos said Friday. "And when I turned on my water this morning, guess what? It was the same water as yesterday when there was a different owner."

Roussos said he wanted customers to have a similar experience: What's familiar remains the same.

As of result of the purchase, Florida Water customers will certainly see one change: a rate increase effective April 1.

The base monthly charge customers pay will increase by 50 cents to $4.85, and the usage rate per thousand gallons of water will increase by 12 cents to $1.12. Sewer rates will remain unchanged.

The increases make the utility's rate structure identical to the one Florida Water had in place in 1992, before the company reduced customers' bills to make up for overcharges. The structure is also identical to one adopted by the county utility system this summer.

While in the wake of Thursday's events officials have spoken and acted on the assumption that their ownership of Florida Water is secure, like so much in the saga of this utility's sale, another chapter is possible.

Though no action has been taken, Weeki Wachee Mayor Robyn Anderson, who also manages the Weeki Wachee Springs attraction, said Friday an appeal of Merritt's ruling is being considered.

An appeal could be disruptive.

To cover the purchase of Florida Water, the county is to issue $43-million in bonds in early December. The figure represents the utility's $36-million price tag plus assorted closing costs.

Under the current plan, those bonds will replenish the investments liquidated Thursday to buy the utility. Should an appeal by Weeki Wachee succeed in delaying the issuance of the bonds, the county could be out $36-million indefinitely.

There is an agreement, however, that requires Florida Water to return the $36-million should the county be unable to issue the bonds.

As Roussos works on the details of utility ownership, assistant county attorney Fred Wagner's mission is to convince bond rating agencies that Weeki Wachee has no shot at winning an appeal.

"We just have to convince them," Wagner said, "that it has really gone away."

Meanwhile, county commissioners have trumpeted Thursday's purchase as a victory _ the culmination of years of struggle that will now give local government rather than a distant corporate owner control over a crucial resource.

Said Commissioner Diane Rowden: "It's over."

_ Will Van Sant can be reached at 754-6127. Send e-mail to vansantsptimes.com.

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