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Information still thin on water deal

The county attorney says details are lacking to allow a decision on the Spring Hill water system.

By JENNIFER FARRELL, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 19, 2002


With time running out for Hernando County to opt in or out of a $520-million megadeal to bring Florida Water Services under government control, county commissioners lack critical information to make the decision.

According to attorney Bruce Snow, who represents the county on utility issues, Florida Water has not provided certain necessary drawings, permits and inventories of equipment and real estate, jeopardizing an engineering consultant's ability to determine the value of the Spring Hill water and sewer system.

Without knowing what the system is worth, Snow said, commissioners can't make an informed decision on the purchase, which would cost $47.9-million for the Spring Hill utility.

Hernando County would then have no choice but to back out, he added.

On Thursday, Snow complained to the Florida Governmental Utility Authority, a four-county coalition crafting the statewide deal, and pleaded for help getting pertinent materials to Coastal Engineering Inc.

He said the delays could keep Coastal from finishing a report in time for commissioners to review it before the June 28 deadline to decide.

"They have been frustrated in getting information," Snow said. "Hopefully, there's something that your authority can do."

On Friday, Florida Water's Brooksville attorney, Joe Mason, dismissed Snow's claim as "posturing."

"Coastal has as complete access to our information as does GUA," he said.

As for a specific request made two weeks ago, Mason said that information is related to persistent problems with water pressure in Spring Hill.

"If the county is equating valuation and water pressure issues, I'll be very interested to know that," he said. "That just adds to our impression that the County Commission is conflicted in making any kind of quasijudicial decisions regarding Florida Water."

Problems with water pressure in Spring Hill have complicated sales negotiations recently. Commissioners have denied requests by the utility for more wells, and Mason unsuccessfully argued they should recuse themselves, saying they are using their regulatory authority to shrink the company's value in preparation for a forceful takeover.

Meanwhile, commissioners wonder if the pressure is being artificially lowered to induce customers to complain to the county.

Two weeks ago, Florida Water rescinded open access extended to Hernando County during sales negotiations with FGUA. The company restored the privilege a week later, but required information requests to be routed through FGUA officials, who must also be present during site visits by county representatives.

On Thursday, Snow said learning more about the system's condition is vital to deciding whether buying it is in the public interest. In Spring Hill, he said, Florida Water is already pumping 160 percent of the capacity permitted to it by the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

Some parts of the utility are roughly 35 years old, meaning physical and functional depreciation must also be considered, he said.

Meanwhile, commissioners are running out of time to ante up or throw in their cards for what is potentially the largest utility deal in state history.

"To call upon them to make an uninformed decision is unfair," Snow said. "If that information continues to not be forthcoming, it's going to be very, very difficult."

-- Jennifer Farrell covers Spring Hill and can be reached at 848-1432. Send e-mail to

farrell@sptimes.com.

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