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Leaders reject rate increases

The city's staff had proposed raising three utility rates at the same time - sewage fees by possibly as much as 44 percent.

By LORRI HELFAND
Published May 12, 2004

LARGO - City leaders don't like the idea of raising three utility rates at once, especially at a time when they're considering raising property taxes for the second year in a row.

At Tuesday's work session, the City Commission told the staff to go back to the drawing board and come up with more palatable alternatives to proposed increases.

According to city staff's original proposal, monthly residential drainage fees could go up as much as 25 percent, solid waste collection fees could increase by as much as 15 percent, and sewage fees could see a hike of 10 to 44 percent.

Staff said the increases were necessary to cover a number of capital projects necessary to maintain and improve the utility systems.

Mayor Bob Jackson seemed most disturbed by the drainage fees, which would go from $3.10 to $3.88 for residential customers. He said he could not support more than a 15 percent increase.

"I would not support 25 percent," Jackson said. "I'd rather see it go to $3.50. This is a very unfair assessment."

He also pointed out that it would be a bigger hit for some commercial customers who already pay $300 or $400 a month for drainage.

Commissioner Pat Gerard said that while a residential customer may see only a 78-cent monthly increase, there are other increases to consider.

"These things add up, and we're not the only ones (considering) raising our taxes this year," she said. "We're talking hundreds of dollars for people on fixed incomes."

But Commissioner Gay Gentry said the high-quality services that the rate increase would permit were part of the promise that Largo made to newly annexed residents.

Gentry said putting those services on the back burner was like saying, "We told you this was a great place, but now we're cutting back."

Most of the City Commission was a bit more comfortable with a raise in the solid waste collection rate, which hasn't been increased in 11 years, especially after City Manager Steve Stanton reminded them that it's one of the city's biggest inducements to annexation.

"People love the garbage service in the community," Stanton said.

The increase would raise the residential rate from $13.35 to $15.35.

Sewage rates have gone up several times during the past decade, the last being a 30 percent increase in 2001. In general, the commission seemed comfortable with the concept behind the staff's proposal on sewage fees. In order to bring in 25 percent more in sewage revenues, staff proposed a variable rate increase for those fees, with a portion of monthly bills directly related to individual households' water consumption.

The rate for sewer service is $20.45. Proposed increased rates could range from $22.55 to $29.40.

Still, most of the commission thought the city could get by with a 20 percent increase in revenues overall.

Before sitting down to the work session at 6:30 p.m., the City Commission and members of Largo's parks department took a firsthand look at the 20.5 acres near Bayside Bridge that several city leaders hope to develop into a park. The city has applied for a grant from the Florida Communities Trust Florida Forever program that may help purchase the $1.5-million property.

After the tour, several of the commissioners were gung-ho on purchasing the land if the funds come through.

Gerard was impressed. "I think it's gorgeous. I think it's worth doing if we can swing it," she said. "It would be a shame to see somebody build condos on it."

But Jackson wasn't sold on the prospect, pointing out the fact that much of the property is under water.

"It's an awful price to pay for (only) 7 acres of usable land," he said.

- Lorri Helfand can be reached at 727 445-4155 or at lorri@sptimes.com

[Last modified May 12, 2004, 01:56:30]


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