Private company wants to purchase water utility

Aqua America's interest comes on the heels of the commissioner's vote to have the county buy the 11 systems.

Published April 13, 2006

Staffers have been preparing for the county to acquire the Florida Governmental Utility Authority's Citrus systems since commissioners voted in favor of a takeover last month.

But now a private, publicly traded utility company is offering to take the systems off the county's hands.

Aqua America Inc. has expressed interest in buying the utility's 11 systems in Citrus, according to Tallahassee attorney Mike Twomey. And the Sugarmill Woods Civic Association and the Pine Ridge Property Owners Association, groups that Twomey represents, are asking commissioners to support the deal.

Twomey and an attorney representing the company met with four county commissioners Tuesday to discuss the possibility.

The company would bring "experience, political accountability and an infusion of equity capital" to make repairs and pay for system expansion, Twomey said in an interview Wednesday.

"We thought that it would be an outcome that all five county commissioners could probably put their arms around," Twomey said.

An attorney for the company contacted Twomey last month after reading media reports about the county's plans to buy out the FGUA's Citrus systems.

From there, Twomey said he set up meetings between Aqua America representatives and leaders from the Sugarmill Woods Civic Association and the Pine Ridge Property Owners Association.

Aqua America's common shares are traded on both the New York and Philadelphia Stock Exchanges under the ticker symbol WTR, according to the company's Web site. The company owns other utility systems in Florida and is looking to expand its operations, Twomey said.

In Citrus, the FGUA has water systems serving Citrus Springs, Pine Ridge, Apache Shores, Lakeside, Gospel Island, Point O'Woods, Spring Gardens, Sugarmill Woods, Golden Terrace Estates, Oak Forest and Rosemont/Rolling Green. It also has five wastewater systems.

The systems serve about 11,300 water customers and 5,215 wastewater customers. A staff report said it would cost more than $30-million to purchase the systems.

The 3-2 County Commission vote to acquire the FGUA systems at a meeting last month came after Assistant County Administrator Tom Dick, who is now performing the county's top administrative duties, recommended against buying the systems, saying there was "no compelling argument" to do so.

The proposed acquisition, Dick said, "could not have come at a worse time" for the county, with staffers already stretched thin preparing for a five-year capital improvement plan that includes $170-million worth of projects.

But Commissioner Vicki Phillips, Commission Chairman Gary Bartell and Commissioner Joyce Valentino said the time had come for the county to take action. They voted in favor of the acquisition, while Commissioner Dennis Damato and Commissioner Jim Fowler voted against it.

Contacted Wednesday, several commissioners said they were willing to keep an open mind but needed more information before they would consider supporting a private company's purchase of the systems.

Bartell said he had reservations about the accountability of a private utility company but has asked the company to provide more information.

Phillips said in order to support a private company's purchase of the utility's systems she would need to know that was what customers wanted.

"He only met with the leadership of those communities," she said. "I would have to be convinced that that was what the constituents wanted."

And even with citizen support, Phillips said she would want to talk with staff about whether private ownership would benefit customers.

"I'm not sure I would want to take a step back," Valentino said. "I think we're going in a good direction ... prefer to move forward because we will have complete control."

Damato said it was "too early to tell" whether he would support Aqua America's purchase. Fowler could not be reached for comment.

Catherine E. Shoichet can be reached at cshoichet@sptimes.com or 860-7309.