County is not the right answer to Aloha issues

Published May 20, 2007

Sen. Mike Fasano should quit kicking the tires. Especially if he expects someone else to take over the payments. The senator's proposal to give Aloha Utilities to Pasco County is akin to acquiring an old junker of a car with an undetermined number of coupons remaining in the payment book and a big repair bill still outstanding.

It's just not a wise investment at this time even if the desire for a trade-in is understandable. Aloha's reliability rating will never make it a best buy. Years of complaints about dark, smelly water in portions of its service area in southwest Pasco continue, according to a letter this week from Fasano to the Public Service Commission.

But, legislative intervention is an overreaction. It is the PSC that is charged with enforcing a 2006 settlement agreement in which Aloha is to rely on a $6-million anion exchange system to remove sulfides from water. The intent is to douse the rotten-egg smell and discoloring that results when the water's hydrogen sulfide interacts with customers' copper piping.

Fasano complained the utility is dragging its feet on the improvements and has been slow to purchase water from Pasco County to meet current and future demands. He asked the PSC to enforce the settlement, which ended years of litigation and an attempt by 2, 000 customers to secede from Aloha's franchise area.

That request from Fasano is not unreasonable and the senator should let the PSC do its job. His followup pitch for legislation stripping Aloha of its business and turning the customers over to Pasco County is at best premature. It amounts to an illegal taking. Even Aloha President Steve Watford is entitled to due process.

If legislators follow Fasano's lead, years of expensive litigation are sure to ensue with a potential multimillion-dollar settlement that typically arises when governments decide they need privately owned assets. Who would pay that bill?

Several years ago County Administrator John Gallagher offered to buy Aloha for $4-million, but was rebuked by the utility. In 2002, the county surveyed private utilities to discern their interest in a government takeover and the expected buyout price. Aloha did not respond, but figure its franchise location in the highly desirable Trinity area would allow the acquisition cost to easily surpass Lindrick Utility's $16-million asking price.

The legislative ploy also leaves unresolved the issue of fixing the utility's treatment system. Would the county be responsible for adding the anion exchange process or would it be expected to just absorb several thousand customers without a new water source? Coincidentally, the proposal comes at the same time the county is ticketing people irrigating their lawns illegally because of concerns about exorbitant water use in the dry season.

If successful, Fasano's plan would take a private utility from under state jurisdiction and give it to a county utility that ran afoul of state environmental regulators last year forcing a expensive repairs and a fine of $350, 000, negotiated down from the original threat of a nearly $2-million penalty.

Is the senator sure this is the kind of oversight Aloha customers are seeking?