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Leaders favor buying utility's systems

County commissioners voted to take the first step toward acquiring the Florida Governmental Utility Authority's Citrus systems Tuesday.

The 3-2 vote came after Assistant County Administrator Tom Dick recommended against buying the systems, saying there was "no compelling argument" to do so.

The proposed acquisition, he said, "could not have come at a worse time" for the county, with staffers already stretched thin preparing for a five-year capital improvement plan that includes $170-million worth of projects.

But Commissioner Vicki Phillips said the time had come to take action.

"It's now or never, and accountability is the issue," she said.

Commission Chairman Gary Bartell and Commissioner Joyce Valentino agreed, voting with Phillips in support of the county's acquisition.

Commissioners Jim Fowler and Dennis Damato voted against that motion.

"I would never buy a company with the limited information that we have," Fowler said. "We can't even provide water and sewer to 600 dwellings in Chassahowitzka. How on earth do we think that we have the ability to take on other systems?"

County Attorney Robert "Butch" Battista said the acquisition process, which will be governed by a 2003 agreement between FGUA and the county, could take up to six months.

But commissioners will still have the option of opting out.

"As we march forward, we don't have to close the deal," Battista said.

The commission's decision Tuesday came after three hours of presentations and discussion.

John Jenkins, a lawyer with the Tallahassee firm of Rose, Sundstrom & Bentley, told commissioners that accountability would increase if the county bought the systems.

He presented an update to his December report to commissioners, noting that a county takeover of the systems would not require rate increases and would reduce operating expenses by about $350,000 per year.

"County staff investigation of the Citrus systems found a lack of preventative maintenance, grounds maintenance, building maintenance, equipment maintenance, inventory and records maintenance," the report said.

Jenkins said Tuesday that customer rates would not increase beyond indexed levels under FGUA or county operation. And Mike Burton, president of Burton & Associates of St. Augustine, said many of the costs would be the same regardless of who owns and operates the systems.

David Miles, the utility's special projects administrator and former chief financial officer, said the FGUA has shown "strong, positive fiscal stewardship of the systems."

"We recognize it's got a long way to go," he said, adding that the FGUA has taken major steps to improve operations and maintenance.

Damato said he had never heard a direct customer complaint about the service FGUA provides.

"We do not have the staff or the political will at this time" to purchase the FGUA's Citrus systems, Damato said.

But several commissioners said the utility had not come far enough.

Phillips criticized what she said was the FGUA's lack of accountability. And she said there are conflicts of interest between the FGUA and Government Services Group, the Longwood company that administers the FGUA.

Bartell said he knew the county would eventually purchase the systems from the utility.

"It was not my intention to do it this quickly, but the FGUA brought that on themselves," he said.

He described the acquisition as a "huge undertaking."

"There's a strong liability," Bartell said. "But I think the buck stops right here."

In Citrus, the FGUA has water systems serving Citrus Springs, Pine Ridge, Apache Shores, Lakeside, Gospel Island, Point O'Woods, Spring Gardens, Sugarmill Woods, Golden Terrace Estates, Oak Forest and Rosemont/Rolling Green. It also has five wastewater systems.

The systems serve about 11,300 water customers and 5,215 wastewater customers. A staff report said it would cost more than $30-million to purchase the systems.

In October, commissioners voted to set aside $50,000 to pay the team of consultants to begin evaluating whether the county should buy the FGUA's systems in Citrus. The commissioners voted to appropriate $25,000 more from the county's contingency fund in December so consultants could complete a more detailed analysis of the possible acquisition.

County officials have criticized the FGUA since July, when the utility first proposed new line extension and maintenance fees for property owners in Citrus Springs and Pine Ridge. The line extension fees for Pine Ridge customers have since been dropped. The county's Water and Wastewater Authority approved water main extension fees in Citrus Springs in December, but the board followed county staff recommendations rather than adopt a higher increase originally proposed by the FGUA.

In other news at Tuesday's commission meeting:

+ Commissioners decided to postpone discussion of a new funding agreement between the county and the Economic Development Council until the commission's next meeting on March 14.

+ Representatives from the Centers and National Alliance on Mental Illness asked commissioners to draft a letter supporting preliminary plans for the Clubhouse Project, which they said would provide a transitional home for people with serious and persistent mental illnesses to work, play and live in the community.

Commissioners voted unanimously to write the letter.

Russell Rasco, executive director of the Centers, formerly know as Marion-Citrus Mental Health, said the group would be heading to Tallahassee soon to seek grant funding for the project.

+ Commissioners voted 3-2 to ask county staffers to examine the funding options for the Chassahowtizka wastewater project and report back to the commission.

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

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