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County rejects funding for sewer system plan

In what could be a fatal blow to the proposed sewer system in Chassahowitzka, the County Commission voted 2-2 Tuesday against levying an assessment to help pay for the project.

That means the county can't reserve space for the assessment on the tax roll this year. And it could jeopardize the more than $4-million in state grant money the county has secured to help fund a sewer system in the coastal community.

Meanwhile, state Sen. Nancy Argenziano has introduced a bill that could change the way local governments pursue wastewater projects.

Currently, state law requires systems be hooked up to central sewer when it is available within 365 days.

Senate Bill 1874, which Argenziano filed last week, would allow homeowners to opt out of connecting to sewer systems if they already have a permitted, working, on-site septic system.

It would also require county governments to conduct studies to compare the costs of hooking up to sewer with the cost of on-site sewage treatment systems.

As for Chassahowitzka, County Commission Chairman Gary Bartell said Wednesday that he planned to meet with the state agencies that had promised grant funding and do everything he could to preserve the grants.

Tuesday's vote "doesn't kill the project," he said Wednesday. "I can't tell you where we're going, but we've got to complete the project."

The vote came nearly two months after a similar vote caused Bartell to declare the project "dead on arrival."

Commissioner Jim Fowler, who did not attend the December meeting where the assessment first came up, offered the project's supporters hope of resurrection.

He said in January that allowing septic systems to remain in environmentally sensitive areas such as Chassahowitzka was an "environmental tragedy" and moved for commissioners to take up the issue again in February.

But Fowler and Commissioner Joyce Valentino voted against it on Tuesday.

Bartell and Commissioner Dennis Damato voted for the assessment and Commissioner Vicki Phillips did not attend Tuesday's meeting.

Fowler said he would only vote for the assessment if commissioners would agree to cap how much people would be required to pay and set aside money from the county's general fund for water quality projects.

"We need to take these steps today. We need to commit to that today," he said.

Bartell said such action would be premature.

Valentino said only the people who benefit from new sewers should pay for them.

During the meeting's public comment period, exchanges were often heated.

Argenziano could not be reached for comment Wednesday about her proposed legislation. But several Citrus officials said that the bill threatens local government's ability to address the community's needs.

Without the guarantee that people would hook up to a sewer system, building the system would be financially unfeasible, they said.

"It would make it awfully difficult to do sewer projects in the future," County Administrator Richard Wesch said.

The county has spent years moving toward building sewer systems in environmentally sensitive areas, he said.

"This could send us in the opposite direction," he said.

Bartell said he planned to speak out against the bill.

"It would just destroy the ability for local government and the private sector to address the needs of the community," he said.

Catherine E. Shoichet can be reached at cshoichet@spttmes.com or 860-7309.

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