TAMPA — Mayor Jane Castor and city public works officials have been laying the groundwork for months on a $3.1 billion proposal to remake Tampa’s aging water and sewer infrastructure and create a new water source for the growing city.
But as the Castor administration rolled out the plan in a series of public meetings in recent weeks, the reaction was mixed.
In working-class East Tampa, residents were unhappy at the prospect of monthly utility bills increasing from $42 to $80 by 2026 for the average customer. Some residents said a low-income assistance program would exclude too many of the city’s working poor.
Two days later, five of the seven City Council members said they opposed $300 million in the plan to convert highly-treated wastewater into drinking water, a process involving injecting about 50 million gallons a day into the aquifer before pumping it back up through hundreds of feet of soil and rock to further clean it.
Council member Bill Carlson, who is leading the effort to squash the project derided by critics as “toilet to tap," joined Joe Citro, Guido Maniscalco, Orlando Gudes and John Dingfelder in a vote asking Castor to strip the water reuse project out of the proposed rate increase at a Thursday workshop.
“The option to do nothing is absolutely the best option,” said Carlson, who said the city hasn’t persuaded residents that converting sewage to drinking water is safe or necessary.
Despite that defeat, Castor hasn’t yet taken the project out of the rate package. Earlier, the mayor said she was considering tweaking the overall rate package, including increasing aid to the city’s poorer residents.
Currently, residents would have to be senior, disabled or both, as well as low-income, to qualify.
“We will make it as palatable as possible for our residents to pay and those who can’t pay we will work with,” Castor said in a recent interview. “We’re in the process of doing the analysis of what the current parameters of the program are and where I want it to be. So I would expect an expansion of the number of people that will qualify for that program.”
Water officials recently pared down the total cost of the recycled water resuse or “TAP” project from $350 million to $300 million.
Castor made the case for the rate increase as a choice between fixing an ailing system or spending more putting a series of band-aids on rusting pipes and worn-out machinery.
“This really isn’t a choice. This is something we have to replace,'' she said. "We’re in a position now where we’re going to have to pay more in responding to water main breaks than it will cost to replace. So it’s not a question of if.”
Public Works officials have said it costs about twice as much on average to make emergency repairs of burst pipes than it would to replace them in advance.
The work would be done over the next 20 years. The city would pay about half of the cost from revenue from increased rates. The rest would come from issuing bonds tied to the increased revenue.
City officials have argued that a rapid increase in leaks and bursting pipes is all the proof residents need for the increased bills.
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In 2018, the city had 1,201 breaks, more than double the number in 2016. Each year, the city loses between 7 percent to 10 percent of its water to broken water mains — about 2 to 2.75 billion gallons per year. City officials estimate those leaks cost the city about $10 million annually.
The problem is simple: the city’s pipes are old. Some date back to the early 1900s. A much bigger chunk installed in the 1950s and 60s are at the end of their life. Overall, about 500 miles of pipe needs to be replaced in the next 20 years out of the city’s network of 2,160 miles.
To help pay for that work and to protect water revenue from plunging during severe droughts when use is restricted, the city plans to join practically every other Florida city in assessing a monthly base charge. It will begin at 3 percent and gradually increase for the next six years.
In the first year, city officials say, the average bill will rise from $41.29 to $46.50, almost 50 percent below the regional average.
The City Council will hold a public hearing on the rate increase at 6 p.m. Thursday in the City Council chambers on the 3rd floor of the old City Hall building.
For more information, go online to: https://www.tampagov.net/pipes