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Water bill changes lie ahead for Pinellas Park

Pinellas Park officials don't yet know when or how to rework the current system, which has a minimum flat rate.

By ANNE LINDBERG, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 9, 2002

PINELLAS PARK -- In a world of uncertainties, this city's residents can be sure of one thing: Their water bill will change, and most likely increase, officials said.

The uncertainties come when Pinellas Park officials talk about the details.

It's unclear how much the rates will change, although one proposal would have some people's bills jumping as much as 23 percent and others dropping as much as 60 percent.

Also uncertain are other issues: whether the rate structure should be changed to reward folks who use less water; if rates should go up because of the changed rate structure, increased costs or both; and when the rates should increase.

"This is still very much in the air," said Jim Walker of the city's utility bill department.

Council members are scheduled to discuss those and other issues during a 7:30 p.m. workshop Tuesday on the second floor of City Hall, 5141 78th Ave. N. The workshop is open to the public, but comment is banned unless the City Council decides otherwise.

Pinellas Park council members have been discussing water rates and the way the city charges for water off and on for the past couple of years.

The conversation was provoked, in part, by council member Rick Butler's concerns that some residents pay too much for water. Butler was especially worried about low-level users who, under the city's current system, are charged a minimum $24.87 monthly charge for up to 3,000 gallons of water.

That system, Butler said, is costly to retirees who use little water and are on fixed incomes. It also provides no incentives for people to conserve water because they are charged the same for 1,000 gallons a month or for 3,000 gallons.

"We've got a lot of customers right now that are paying more than their fair share, that are paying for something they're not using," Butler said. "You cannot charge people that are not receiving the product. . . . You can't charge me for a glass of water I'm not using."

So last year, the city paid $47,487.90 for a water study that examined the city's utility rate system to come up with an alternate plan that would remove some of the monetary burden from low-level users and would encourage conservation. The study also looked at whether the rates themselves were adequate through the year 2006.

The study assumed, among other things, that the cost of operating and maintaining the system will increase 3 percent each year. Part of that is the need to replace the aging pipes that make up Pinellas Park's water system.

The study also found that the city needs to keep at least $12-million in a utilities reserve account for emergencies that might arise.

It then concluded that Pinellas Park needs to raise its water rates by about 22 percent by 2006. That means someone paying the current minimum of $24.87 each month would pay $30.34 in 2006.

The study gave the City Council several plans for raising the rates. Council members declined to raise rates for the current fiscal year of 2001-02.

That left members with a choice this year of spreading the hike evenly over the next four years, increasing them a lot over the next two years, or jacking them up at one time.

During a workshop last month, council members seemed to favor a gradual increase of 4.15 percent each year for the next four years. That would mean the minimum users would see only $1.03 more each month on their bills in the 2002-03 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.

That rate, like all others, applies only to the charges consumers would see on their water and sewer bills. It does not reflect the charges for taxes, garbage service or the surcharge for folks who get city water but live outside Pinellas Park.

The study also proposed a plan for changing Pinellas Park's water rate structure. Under the proposal, residents who do not use much water would benefit.

The new system, if adopted by the council, would charge $10 for those who used no water. That could apply to people who go back north over the summer. After that, people are charged for actual usage, with the bill growing as people use more water.

Some water users would see their bills drop by 60 percent each month under the plan because they use little water.

While it sounds fair on the surface, some council members hesitated to adopt it after they saw the 23 percent increase for people who use about 3,000 gallons of water each month. The price there increased to make up for the losses the system would take because of the change.

It's unclear how many people's bills would go up by 23 percent, said Walker of the utility billing department, because usage changes each month. The average residential customer, he said, uses about 5,500 gallons of water each month.

Those folks would see a bigger bill, but it would be closer to a 5 percent hike, the amount projected for those who use 6,000 gallons a month.

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