Buying water and sewer utilities is in the public’s interest. On that, Pasco commissioners agree unanimously.
What they can’t agree on, at least not yet, is when to raise utility rates in the rest of the county to finance acquiring a utility serving Jasmine Lakes and Palm Terrace in west Pasco and Zephyr Shores outside the city of Zephyrhills.
The proposed 2 percent rate increase, adding about $1.56 to the monthly bill of a county customer using 6,000 gallons of water, is scheduled to be considered at a Dec. 10 commission meeting. The rate hike was slated for a vote Nov. 19 in New Port Richey, but commissioners agreed to a second public hearing in Dade City at the insistence of newly elevated Commission Chairman Mike Moore.
“My concern is, this is a countywide rate increase, and people on the east side have not heard this,’’ said Moore.
Even with the delay, the remaining four commissioners said they will vote for the increase after the second public hearing.
The county plans to buy the utility from the Florida Governmental Utility Authority, which previously acquired the properties from Aqua Utilities to try to stem customer complaints about the quality and cost of the service.
Combined, the three service areas total 3,600 water and 3,100 sewer customers. Pasco County’s utility system has approximately 120,000 customers.
“Clean, affordable water is a necessity, not a luxury,’’ Nancy Benitez, of Palm Terrace Gardens, told commissioners last week.
Monthly bills for the so-called Pasco Aqua customers using 6,000 gallons of water range from $104.43 to $141.14, depending on location. Pasco County customers now pay $75.32, but would see an increase to $76.78, under the proposed rate increase.
The countywide subsidy comes because the utilities carry heavy debt and would require $4.5 million worth of equipment upgrades in the first year, county officials said.
The purchase price amounts to the outstanding debt, which totaled $18.5 million for Pasco Aqua, Steve Spratt, general manager of the Florida Government Utility Authority, told commissioners earlier this year.
Pasco joined the utility cooperative in 2008 as a precursor to acquiring troubled private utilities.
“Frankly, I wish we were here three or four years earlier … but this is the right thing to do,’’ Commissioner Jack Mariano said.
“I don’t think anyone will even notice this (rate increase), but I know the people living in these communities will celebrate,’’ said Commissioner Kathryn Starkey.
Commissioners said previously they would support a similar rate increase to acquire the former Lindrick system serving the waterfront community of Gulf Harbors. That system’s debt is more than $24 million.
Unrelated to the acquisitions, commissioners previously approved four-year rate increases that bumped water bills 1.5 percent and sewer bills 3.5 percent annually through the 2021 fiscal year.
This story has been updated to reflect when the county’s multi-year utility rate increases are scheduled to end.