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St. Petersburg grills wastewater staff on recent sewage dumps

It wasn't an easy first public appearance for Tom Gibson, the city's interim public works administrator.

Gibson replaced Mike Connors, who abruptly retired on Monday, after months of controversy, the most recent episode being the city's dumping of more than 16 million gallons into Tampa and Boca Ciega bays this month.

On Thursday, Gibson faced council members that demanded answers and solutions. Gibson and Water Resources Director Steve Leavitt held to their position that the dumping was due to an extraordinary weather event from mid-July to early August.

But several council members weren't buying that explanation. They wanted to know how much it would cost to fix leaky sewer pipes and manhole covers.

The answer? At least $350 million dollars.

Council member Karl Nurse said the city needs to raise its wastewater rates from a proposed 3.75 percent to 4.50 percent---that would raise about $350,000.

He acknowledged that was a drop in the bucket. Even if the city doubled its efforts---already budgeted at about $4 million for next year---it would take 50 years to fix all the pipes, he said.

Gibson recommended the city focus on the biggest leaks. The possibility of floating bonds to speed the pace of repairs was discussed. Leavitt said the system wasn't in a "catastrophic" state of disrepair.

The staff's reluctance to jump on board with offers of more money for their departments puzzled council member Jim Kennedy.

"I was like, okay," Kennedy said during a break with an exasperated chuckle.

Gibson and Leavitt were also reluctant to concede that closing the Albert Whitted waste water treatment plant had been a mistake before it completed the expansion of the city's Southwest treatment plant. That plant isn't expected to increase emergency capacity until next summer.

Nurse didn't agree. "Clearly, in hindsight we shouldn't have shut down Albert Whitted down before the expansion was done," he said.

A council committee voted unanimously to ask for an independent review of the city's waste water system. The full council should vote on the proposal next month.