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    Water fee ruled constitutional

    The ruling lets the county charge both users and non-users of reclaimed water.

    By EDIE GROSS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published January 12, 2001


    Pinellas County is free to charge residents of beach communities a monthly fee for reclaimed water service -- even if those residents do not use the service, the Florida Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

    The ruling means the county can move forward with plans to expand its reclaimed water system to the barrier islands south of Clearwater Beach, part of a $195-million project, one of the largest of its kind on the East Coast.

    "With this decision, we'll pull those plans off the shelf and go to bid," said county Utilities Director Pick Talley.

    The city managers of Madeira Beach and Indian Rocks Beach, who sued the county to block the project and its fees, said city commissioners and the cities' attorneys would have to review the court's ruling before deciding whether to pursue the case further.

    The spat between the county and the two cities over reclaimed water service has bubbled for more than three years.

    The County Commission voted to expand its reclaimed water system to the barrier island communities in 1997. But some beach officials objected to the county's plan to charge beach residents -- even those who did not use the water -- a $7 monthly fee for the availability of that service.

    Clearwater Beach residents would be unaffected by the move, as the city has its own reclaimed water system.

    Attorneys for Madeira Beach, Indian Rocks Beach and five residents of those communities sued the county about 18 months ago, arguing that the county was trying to impose a tax against the will of the cities.

    Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court Judge Charles W. Cope agreed with the cities in July 1999, declaring the fee unconstitutional. Cope also refused to approve the county's request to issue $8.7-million in bonds that would have helped build the reclaimed water system. The bonds would have been paid off with the money collected from the monthly fee.

    Thursday's Supreme Court ruling overturns Cope's decision. Grace Dunlap, bond counsel for the county, said she will prepare paperwork as soon as possible to get that bond request back on track.

    The judge's approval of the bond issue is not required, but it makes the bonds more marketable because it indicates that a court has signed off on their worthiness, Dunlap said.

    "My characterization of this ruling is, we won on all points. We couldn't really ask for anything better," she said.

    The Supreme Court struck down the cities' claims that the utility fee was an unfair tax on the beaches. It is, instead, a legal "user fee" that benefits the payers by giving them access to reclaimed water, even if they choose not to use it, the ruling said.

    "Here, there is no question that the Availability Charge provides a special benefit to those paying the fee: unlimited access to reclaimed water for non-potable, outdoor uses, such as irrigation and washing activities," the court ruled.

    Talley said the lawsuit so far had not slowed the county's plans down too much. The county went ahead and designed a reclaimed water system for Madeira Beach, and construction on that will begin in the fall, he said.

    Madeira Beach, Treasure Island, Redington Beach, North Redington Beach and Redington Shores should have access to reclaimed water by summer or fall 2002, Talley said.

    Communities from Indian Shores up to Sand Key should have the water about a year later, he said.

    Residents who use the water will pay the $7 monthly access fee plus another $2, Talley said. The fee will expire in 30 years.

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