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Water rates to rise in April

Drought contributes to a 5 percent increase. That will cost an average customer $8 a year - with more raises on the horizon.

By LEONORA LaPETER

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 2, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- The cost of drought, growth and neglect is getting more expensive for St. Petersburg residents.

Water rates will rise 5 percent in April, and that's just the beginning. City residents can expect an estimated 47 percent increase in water and sewer rates over the next five years.

City officials said the increases will help pay for the additional cost of water as Tampa Bay Water grapples with a severe drought, and for upgrades to the city's aging utility system.

But city officials said Tuesday they would not pass on a 2.8 percent jump in the wholesale cost of water approved by Tampa Bay Water earlier this week. Instead, they will get the $400,000 needed to pay the higher cost from city's reserve fund for water.

"This 5 percent rate increase doesn't make up for what we actually need, but it goes a long way toward getting us there," Mayor David Fischer said at Thursday's City Council meeting. "I've said it before, you're seeing the cheapest water today that you'll ever see."

The average customer using about 5,600 gallons of water each month would pay about 67 cents more per month, or $8.04 a year, after April 1.

With sewer rates expected to rise at roughly the same pace as water each year, an average customer can expect to pay $18.72 more each month five years from now for water and sewer.

Ingrid Comberg, owner of Uptown Laundromat, pointed out that business owners pay even more. "You're not talking about a trip to McDonald's or a movie ticket," she said. "It's a lot for a small business owner."

Council members Larry Williams and Rene Flowers voted against Thursday's rate increase because they said the increases are getting out of hand. The city is planning 8 percent annual increases in sewer and water rates over the next five years.

"They're asking if I'll vote for an 8 percent increase (a year) for people on fixed incomes and the answer is no, I will not vote for that," said Williams, who finished third Tuesday in the race for mayor and is leaving the council. He has requested a recount of votes in the mayor's race.

The past few years are littered with water- and sewer rate increases.

They have have gone up five times in the last seven years -- a total increase of $8.88 a month for the average customer over that period.

The Tampa Bay area is dealing with a severe drought that has brought Tampa Bay Water to the brink of pumping limits set by the state. Fischer told council members the regional water provider will bring more water online in 2002 with a desalination plant.

The city was going to institute the 5 percent increase last fall when it raised sewer rates by 5.5 percent. But it delayed the water rate increase after learning from Tampa Bay Water that the city paid $600,000 more than it owed last year.

This week's wholesale water rate increase from Tampa Bay Water was not in the picture when city officials set the 5 -percent increase. If Tampa Bay Water's increase had been passed on to customers, Thursday's rate increase would have been 7 percent.

In other business, the council:

Agreed to reconsider the standards for co-sponsoring an event after the recent problematic SuperFest during Super Bowl weekend. City Council member Bill Foster wants the issue to be considered by the city's Policy and Planning subcommittee.

"Not only did we allow the event to open without prepayment for all city services, but we accepted an out-of-state check for police services in the amount of $16,000, which then did not clear due to insufficient funds," Foster wrote. "We were warned that this could happen. The bad check was foreseeable and preventable. We simply cannot allow this to happen again. Burn us once, shame on you -- burn us twice, shame on me."

Passed an ordinance that allows the city to create dog parks, fenced areas where dogs can roam free. The city is considering a dog park at a recreational area on Coquina Key, but the council would have to approve the park. The City Council also decided to set standards for what percentage of residents must approve of the dog park before it can be established. Some residents called the city "progressive" for considering the dog parks, but Coquina Key resident R. Charles Coleman was opposed.

"Just because the general public is willing to tolerate other peoples' pets doesn't mean we must now accommodate them," he said.

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