Hillsborough plans utility rate hikes for next four years

The annual 4 percent increases would expand and modernize water and sewer systems in south county and replace 26,000 septic tanks.
Hillsborough County's water treatment plant in Lithia. The county's south-central utility system serves 465,000 people.
Hillsborough County's water treatment plant in Lithia. The county's south-central utility system serves 465,000 people. [ Hillsborough County ]
Published March 5, 2021|Updated March 5, 2021

TAMPA — Lay all the pipes owned by Hillsborough County’s utilities department end to end and the pipeline would stretch from Tampa to Los Angeles and then continue nearly to Honolulu.

It’s apparently not enough.

The nearly 5,000 miles of pipes, including 2,556 miles just for water distribution, can’t guarantee sufficient flow in future years from a Lithia water treatment plant to new homes in Wimauma. As a result, the county is seeking to increase its water and sewer rates each of the next four years to expand and modernize its system.

The proposal increases the utility charges by 4 percent annually beginning Oct. 1 and continues until the final installment starts Oct. 1, 2024. A public hearing before the Hillsborough County Commission is scheduled for April 21.

Currently, a customer using 6,000 gallons of water each month pays a monthly bill of $85.04. If the commission approves the rate hikes,, that monthly bill would climb by $3.40 after Oct. 1 and eventually reach $99.48 after the fourth-year’s increase.

“That sounds an awful lot like an inflationary rate to me. I’d be inclined to support it,” Commissioner Stacy White said during a Feb. 24 commission workshop.

The proposed increases follow 4 percent jumps in water and sewer rates each of the past two years and the commission’s decision last year to increase south county utility impact fees 65 percent, to nearly $5,900 per new single-family home. At the same time, the commission also reinstituted an $1,822 per-home utility reservation fee that had been zeroed out in 2014.

Related: Hillsborough increases impact fees for water, sewer service

Those helped finance ongoing short-term fixes in the south county, where rapid growth has meant more water use, low pressure during periods of high demand and county-imposed irrigation restrictions.

“Everybody wants a green lawn. Everybody wants a lush landscape,” said Assistant County Administrator George Cassady.

To compensate, the county, over the next three years, is adding a new transmission pipe, a storage tank capable of holding 3 million gallons of water, new pumps and a booster station to aid the flow of water traveling from the treatment plant in Lithia to south county.

The county added an estimated 22,000 customer meters in its south-central service area over the five-year period ending Sept. 30, 2020.

All those new homes, noted Cassady, come with in-ground sprinkler systems. And per capita increases in water use presumably are tied to people watering new landscaping.

“It’s just difficult to manage your demand when someone’s got their sprinkler running everyday,” he told commissioners.

The proposed rate increases are intended to help pay for the phase two long-term solutions through 2028 that include a new pump station and storage on 330 acres the county is buying from Ag-Mart, a new treatment plant, a new Tampa Bay Water wellfield, a booster station and an new supply pipelines.

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Related: Environmental land buy approved, criticized

The county’s water resources department has 197,000 accounts and serves more than 665,000, people, more than two-thirds of whom are in the county’s south-central system south of the city of Tampa.

The new water supplies are needed because more new homes are coming. The county already has committed to providing 6 million gallons of water daily — equal to nearly 10 percent of the capacity at the Lithia treatment plant — to the more than 23,000 homes and apartments to be built over the next six years in the south county.

Additionally, 10,700 more homes and apartments are planned, but developers have not yet applied for county utility service.

Other improvements are coming, too, if the rate increases are approved.

The county plans to connect 26,000 homes and businesses on septic to the county’s central sewer system. All of the customers are inside the county’s urban service boundary.

It also will replace 1,500 low-pressure sewer systems in the Ruskin and Wimauma areas that are prone to breakdowns during power outages. The antiquated systems stand in the way of long-term economic development in the two south-county areas, said Commission Chair Pat Kemp.

Protecting the environment from potential damage from pumping too much groundwater in the future is a key consideration, said Commissioner Mariella Smith, noting it is imperative for commissioners to take into account water availability when considering future growth in south county.

The county must be able to supply water, she said, and “not just by requiring all the people south of the Alafia River to go on onerous water restrictions.”