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Water service may get upgrades

With Hillsborough's acquisition of three more private water systems, some customers can expect new fire hydrants and improved water pressure and quality.

By JANET ZINK
Published October 3, 2003

James Vedral has been asking the county for years to put fire hydrants in his Clair-Mel neighborhood.

For years, the county has been telling him it can't be done.

Until now.

County officials say the recent purchase of three water utilities could make the addition of hydrants possible. Hillsborough County last month paid Florida Water Services $14.6-million for the systems in the Brandon area and Tampa.

In addition to fire hydrants, the 3,600 customers served by those utilities can expect improved customer service, water pressure and quality, said Kevin McConnell, who manages real estate transactions for the water department.

"All this will be gradual," McConnell said.

In recent weeks, the county staff has been surveying the systems to see where new pipes, valves and other components are needed. In some cases, old pipes that can't accommodate the pressure necessary to operate fire hydrants will be replaced.

"There are two reasons why you have a potable water system: One is to eat, cook, and bathe with; and one that's not thought of very often is fire protection," McConnell said.

Monthly water bills will go up or down, depending on where customers live, said Roger Castro, the county water department's billing manager. For example:

- Florida Water Services charged Seaboard customers $77.12 for 6,000 gallons of water; Hillsborough County, will charge $64.78. The Seaboard system covers Palm River and Clair-Mel and the area on Lumsden Road between Providence Road and Interstate 75.

- The franchise charged Valrico Hills customers $46.74 for 6,000 gallons; the county will charge $64.78. Valrico Hills provides water to customers east of Valrico Road between State Road 60 and Lumsden.

- The franchise charged Hershel Heights customers, who receive no wastewater service, $20.63 for 6,000 gallons; the county will charge $27.43. The Hershel Heights system is in Tampa south of the Hillsborough River between 50th and 56th streets.

The purchase of the Florida Water Services systems takes the county closer to its goal of buying up all the water franchises in the county by 2010.

"This was a large acquisition and it took fully 50 percent of franchise customers off-line and now they're county customers," McConnell said.

Before the county water department was established in the late 1960s, newly built subdivisions received water from private companies. At one time, more than 100 franchises operated in Hillsborough County. The county began acquiring them in the 1970s.

Now, only about nine franchises serving 4,000 customers remain; the largest supplies about 1,200 customers in Original Carrollwood.

Florida Water Services is owned by Allete Inc., based in Duluth, Minn. The company, whose holdings also include automobile services and electric utilities, decided to give up the water business in 2001, said company spokesman Steve Kinney.

After trying in vain to find one buyer for all 152 water and wastewater treatment facilities in 26 Florida counties, Allete began selling them off in chunks earlier this year.

Hillsborough County paid for the three systems with $6-million from the community investment tax and $8-million from utility revenues generated by monthly bills, said water department director Mike McWeeny. He estimated it will take 30 years to recoup the money spent on the purchase.

Vedral, who has been lobbying the county for fire hydrants in his neighborhood, got his last bill from Florida Water Services in early September, and it was a document he was happy to pull out of his mailbox.

Because he lives in the Seaboard service area, his monthly bill will be lower; and, if the fire hydrants go in, he'll save $400 annually on homeowner's insurance.

Neighborhoods without hydrants get fire protection from tanker trucks. But insurers often raise rates if a home isn't within 1,000 feet of a fire hydrant and within 5 miles of a fire station, said Charity Huerta, customer service representative at Italiano Insurance Co.

Vedral said he's glad to see the county take control of the utility.

"Once they start putting new (pipes) in here everybody's going to get better pressure, better service," he said. "People will stop complaining."

- Janet Zink can be reached at 661-2441 or jzink@sptimes.com

[Last modified October 2, 2003, 11:55:16]

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