TAMPA — The City Council approved a massive $2.9 billion utility rate increase Thursday night that will pay for the most expensive and extensive infrastructure project in Tampa history.
Mayor Jane Castor’s proposal to fix the city’s aging water and sewer systems will see the average residential bill increase from the current $41.29 a month to about $80 by 2028.
Her chief of staff John Bennett told council members the city won’t regret spending billions to slow and eventually end the nearly constant water main breaks and sewer line cave-ins. There have been more than 3,500 such failures in the last two years alone.
“I think it’s time to celebrate what’s underground as much as we celebrate what’s above ground,” Bennett said.
City Council member John Dingfelder was the only no vote. He said he couldn’t support the 20-year length of the program. But his attempt to limit the program to 8 years failed to gain any support from other council members.
Dingfelder, however, successfully persuaded his colleagues to further expand a low-income assistance program that could cost $1.8 million next year if each of the 51,980 eligible families take advantage of it.
Every council member said the new rates are necessary.
“My grandmother is 92 and we have pipes that are older than she is,” said Guido Maniscalco.
Added Joe Citro: “It’s time to stop repairing and start replacing.”
Public works officials said the city currently spends more than $20 million a year responding to water and sewer line breaks or cave-ins. They showed pictures of cave-ins on city streets large enough to swallow a car and streets flooded with sewage spewing from manholes.
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Earlier Thursday, Castor smoothed the way for approval of her program by stripping out $300 million dedicated to a proposal to convert wastewater to drinking water. Dubbed “toilet to tap” by critics, it had caused a rift with other local governments, especially St. Petersburg. Last month, five Tampa City Council members came out against it.
Castor also expanded the low-income assistance program by 300 percent ― which the council then expanded even further.
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Customers will see an increase in their bills starting in the November billing cycle. The average bill will increase from $41.29 to $46.50 a month, about half the regional average.
Council member Orlando Gudes joined Dingfelder in requesting that minority-owned businesses be given greater opportunities to win contracts during the massive public works project. Bennett said the city would closely monitor and encourage greater minority participation.
“We need to move the bar and we’re going to work together to move it,” Bennett said.
The mood of council members, though, was positive for having to approve a considerable hike in rates.
Council member Bill Carlson praised Castor for her “political courage” and said he appreciated her willingness to adapt the program to address concerns about wastewater conversion and aid to the city’s poor residents.
Chair Luis Viera framed the issue as the basic nuts and bolts responsibilities of government.
“A long-term solution is required because this is a long-term problem,” he said.
Castor released a statement after the vote expressing disappointment in the council members who opposed the wastewater reuse project, but praising them for the fact that they “rose to the occasion” on Thursday on a “difficult decision.”
The mayor, in office for just over four months, then promised Tampa that the project wouldn’t fade away.
“I always say, you have never seen a ribbon cutting on an underground project. Well, just you wait.”
Editors Note: The number of families eligible for a low-income assistance program was updated in this story.