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Water bill likely to swell
Most Tampa leaders say an increase in the city's relatively low rates is needed to cover repairs.
By JANET ZINK
Published May 29, 2007
Frank Accomando hasn't taken his jet ski for a joyride since late last year because of the low water level of the Hillsborough River behind his home. "Until we start to get afternoon showers, it's going to continue to drop," he said.
[Times photo: Daniel Wallace]
TAMPA - The party is over for Tampa water customers.
Their rates now are among the lowest in the region. But that's likely to change.
With the city under pressure to encourage conservation, meet rising demand, pay for repairs to leaky pipes and give more fresh water to the Hillsborough River, Mayor Pam Iorio wants to increase water charges.
Most City Council members, who will need to approve any price bumps, support the idea.
"I don't think we have any choice," said council member Mary Mulhern.
But at least two members question whether it's necessary.
"Maybe that's one of the nice benefits of living in the city - we've had lower water rates and it would be nice to keep them low," council member John Dingfelder said.
The council's first task: consider a surcharge to pay for water purchases from Tampa Bay Water, the regional utility. That's scheduled to go before the council in June.
The city already has spent millions from its reserve funds to buy water to meet demand that can't be met by withdrawals from the Hillsborough River, the city's primary source of drinkable water. The total price tag this year will be between $5-million and $10-million. Iorio wants to recoup that money from customers, which could add about $36 to $72 a year to water bills.
City officials also say a pipe that connects the Tampa Bypass Canal east of the city to the Hillsborough River in north Tampa loses 40 percent of the water that passes through it to leaks and evaporation. Upgrades to that pipe are part of a $40-million plan to double the amount of fresh water that reaches the river, part of the settlement of a 7-year-old lawsuit filed by an environmental group.
Will that project require an increase in water rates?
"We're going to have to pay for it somehow. There's no new money," said Steve Daignault, the city's administrator for public works and utilities.
Aged, leaking pipes throughout the city lost about 4-billion gallons of water last year, according to a consultant's report.
Iorio, who did not return calls for comment, has said she plans to ask the council to approve a water rate increase this summer to help pay for repairs to pipes, some of which are more than 100 years old.
And there's yet another imperative on the city to raise rates: An executive order from the Southwest Florida Water Management District directs the city to come up with a pricing structure to encourage conservation.
Call to use reclaimed
City Council member Tom Scott said he's open to looking at increasing water rates, and council member Charlie Miranda says the rate increases are inevitable.
The cost of providing water is rising, he said, whether it's because the city has to buy water from Tampa Bay Water or because pipes need repairs.
"Those things have to be addressed," Miranda said.
Mulhern sees the pipe problem as one good argument for raising rates. But she also supports an increase to make people think twice before turning on their sprinklers.
Mulhern would also like to see rates reduced for treated wastewater, also called reclaimed water, which can't be used for drinking or cooking but is fine for watering lawns. The city now dumps 50-million gallons a day of treated wastewater into Tampa Bay.
Right now, there's no price break to encourage people to hook up to reclaimed water.
"It is a huge amount of water we put into watering lawns. It's like 40 percent. We need a concerted effort to not using drinking water for that," she said.
But council members Dingfelder and Joseph Caetano say they are hesitant to vote for any rate increases.
Spending waste cited
Caetano said residents are already burdened with property taxes and bills for city services.
Meanwhile, he said, the city wastes money. He points to more than $600,000 spent for plans for a stormwater project in South Tampa that faced so much public opposition it was shelved, and more than $7-million paid to the architect of a failed art museum project.
Caetano said he will oppose any increase.
"I will not support it until I know we have a handle on our expenses, and we're not going to be doing any frivolous projects," Caetano said. "We've got to curb our spending."
Dingfelder doubts raising water rates will lessen demand.
"I don't believe people are sloppy with their water because the water's cheap," he said. "I think they don't conserve because we don't as good a job of educating everybody."
Dingfelder said there might be other ways to lessen water use, such as requiring connection to reclaimed pipes and discontinuing service to water customers outside city limits.