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Hillsborough looks at paying millions for private water utilities

Published Aug. 8, 2013

TAMPA — For years, Hillsborough County commissioners have fielded complaints of dirty water and sewage backups from residents who get services from aging pipes maintained by private companies.

Commissioners voted unanimously Wednesday to explore purchasing the last of those private utilities, even as staff warned of possibly eye-popping costs that could drive up rates for all county utility customers.

County staff placed the cost to purchase the remaining seven private franchises serving just fewer than 3,700 homes in unincorporated areas at between $9.1 million and $13.7 million, which they said could fall far short of the actual costs if the companies are unwilling sellers. The hit to the county's existing 155,000 customers could reach more than $6 apiece annually, also a possible low-ball number.

But commissioners argued that there is perhaps nothing more essential that local government does for its residents than provide safe, drinkable water.

"Access to clean potable water should not be a privilege but a basic right for all of our citizens," said Commissioner Kevin Beckner, who made the proposal. "I think we ought to take private franchises out of that role."

Beckner's comments were greeted by enthusiastic applause from dozens of residents from the East Lake area near the eastern boundary of the city of Tampa. Many of them had addressed commissioners for more than an hour Wednesday, complaining of price gouging by Pluris Eastlake, the private utility that provides drinking water these residents said alternately is brown and stinky or tastes heavily of treatment chemicals.

Pluris was seeking board approval for a 10-year extension of its franchise providing water and sewer service to 960 homes.

The people who live in those homes demanded — not for the first time in recent years — that commissioners do something to help the neighborhood.

Tonia Hammond said she appeared before commissioners more than a year ago to complain of tap water that looked dirty and smelled.

A month later, Pluris flushed the lines. But Hammond said it remains cloudy. "It's staining our toilet bowl," she said. "If it stains our toilets, what's it doing to our insides?"

Lori Sells told commissioners that chemicals in the water are so strong that they lighten her coffee. And Anita Nolin said that her water and sewage bill now approaches what she pays for electricity, and the taste is foul.

"I don't like drinking the water," Nolin said. "It's nasty."

Pluris Eastlake president Maurice Gallarda said bills are higher for its customers mainly because of the sewage, which is treated by the city of Tampa. The city adds a 25 percent surcharge to its normal sewage assessment because the waste comes from outside its municipal boundaries.

Other company representatives said they will have spent about $250,000 in the past two years repairing 40- to 50-year-old pipes and noted that the Florida Department of Health and the county have found water samples acceptably clean.

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"We are attempting to address the wastewater lines and sewer lines and repair them," said Joseph Kuhns, regional manager for Pluris Holdings.

Before Florida counties began offering municipal services, many residential developers provided wells for drinking water and mini sewage-treatment plants that were turned over to private operators. In recent decades, as suburbs swelled, county governments acquired many of those pipes and treatment plants and formed unified utilities, requiring developers to hook up to a central system.

But the seven franchises in Hillsborough, operated by four companies, remain. County utilities operators fear that costs to repair aging pipe and treatment systems could drive up their early price estimates substantially. Five of the company-run utilities are located in northern Hillsborough, far outside areas where county government typically supplies water and sewer service and where most residents rely on private wells and septic tanks.

Commissioners voted to have county staff prepare options for how to pay for the acquisitions. Commissioner Les Miller, who represents the East Lake area, said the exercise is worthwhile.

"Water is a necessity," he said. "It is the lifeblood of everyone."

Bill Varian can be reached at varian@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3387.


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