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Steady for years, city rates head up

Treasure Island officials are poised to raise rates for sewer service, trash collection and bridge passes.

By KATHY SAUNDERS

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 3, 2000


TREASURE ISLAND -- The cost of living here is going up.

Sewer rates likely will increase by 25 percent this summer, followed by two more increases of 15 and 10 percent by 2002. And by the end of this year, residents probably will be paying more for trash collection and annual bridge passes.

All this comes atop a 46 percent increase in city property taxes imposed in 1998.

City commissioners met for three hours Tuesday morning to discuss the possible rate increases.

The reason for the higher rates, said Mayor Leon Atkinson, is "because your previous administration was scared to raise taxes or fees."

Sewer rates have remained the same for 20 years, while the cost to maintain the 50-year-old wastewater treatment system is $500,000 a year and growing.

Trash collection fees have held steady since 1987.

Annual passes for the Treasure Island Causeway Bridge have cost $20 since 1990.

"Why did our predecessors do this? Why did they allow this to happen?" asked Commissioner Butch Ellsworth, pointing to the political ramifications of raising taxes and fees. Ellsworth, who was re-elected to a second term in March, said he was criticized during his campaign about the 1998 tax increase. That increase in city property taxes was needed, city officials say, to replenish the city's reserves.

"We are going to look like the bad end of the stick here," Ellsworth said.

Even when the city had money in the past, former commissioners were reluctant to spend it on capital projects, said City Manager Chuck Coward.

"Now would be the time to do it," said Atkinson. "As long as the commission stands together, it won't hurt anyone in the election because we are running a business."

Sewer budget deficit

In June, commissioners plan to change the way sewer fees are charged and to increase the rates by 25 percent. The increase would appear on August bills and provide the city with additional revenue this fall. Next year, the city likely would increase the rates another 15 percent. They are scheduled to rise again by 10 percent the following year. "That's a $20-million infrastructure that you have and you really need to maintain it," said City Public Works Director Don Hambidge.

City Finance Director Darren LaFrance is proposing that the city charge all residents a base fee for connecting to the sewer treatment system. Currently, the city charges something called a "readiness to serve" fee that is based on the number of plumbing fixtures in every structure.

"It is not easily understood by the city staff or, more importantly, by our residents," LaFrance said. "A single person who lives alone in a four-bedroom, three-bathroom home has a hard time understanding why he or she pays a higher "flat' rate than the couple with three children who live in a two-bedroom, one-bathroom home."

Under the new system, residents of a single-family home on Treasure Island would pay $5.30 a month (or $10.60 on the bimonthly bill). In addition, each household would be charged $2.56 per thousand gallons of water that is used each month.

The water usage is reported by the Pinellas County utilities inspectors who read water meters. The city's current "volumetric" charge per thousand gallons is $1.70.

In a presentation to commissioners, Hambidge said the money is needed for operations, repair and sewer treatment. The city's sewer fund had a $3-million balance in 1995. But the city has been draining about $700,000 a year from the account to pay for repairs to the sewer pipes.

Last year, the city collected about $1.4-million in sewer fees, but it spent more than $2-million.

Treasure Island's wastewater is pumped to St. Petersburg's Northwest plant for treatment. St. Petersburg has raised the rates for treatment, but Treasure Island and St. Pete Beach have refused to pay the higher fees. Both cities are collecting the extra fees and holding the money in separate accounts, pending an outcome of a lawsuit over the matter. St. Pete Beach raised its sewer rates in 1999.

In the meantime, Treasure Island also is expecting its maintenance costs to increase. Since 1997, all of the city's 495 manholes have been rehabilitated. Hambidge said crews installed plastic linings in the manholes to repair bricks that had deteriorated.

The city needs to spend about $1.5-million in the next five to 10 years to replace those manholes. It also needs to replace most of the 50 miles of underground sewer pipe in the city. Hambidge said a majority of the sewer system is made up of 4-foot-long clay pipes that were connected with rope and a tar-like substance that has disintegrated. High chloride levels in the wastewater indicate that seawater is leaking into the pipes.

"If something happens on Gulf Boulevard, we have to go in and fix it," Hambidge said. "We can't wait until the next budget cycle."

Timing of rate increase

Trash collection and recycling programs in Treasure Island already are operating at a slight loss, said LaFrance, and commissioners want to increase those fees by 4 or 5 percent.

The city has about $554,000 in its trash collection and recycling account. That is enough money to replace the city's four garbage trucks if necessary. But annual operation costs are cutting into that fund.

"The increase is really to eliminate that small loss," said LaFrance.

"From a good business standpoint, those rates should be raised slightly and they should be raised now," said Coward.

Cost of annual passes

The causeway fund, which pays for maintenance of the drawbridge as well as the two approach bridges and the roadway from Gulf Boulevard to Park Street, also needs to continue growing, Coward said.

The causeway fund is supported by tolls collected at the bridge, 80 percent of which come from coins rather than annual passes. Coward wants to discourage short-term visitors from buying annual passes.

"As the coin-payers learn that they can buy a pass for 20 bucks -- then our 80 percent revenue source becomes in jeopardy," Coward said.

He suggested commissioners raise the annual pass $5 a year for the next three years. The first rate increase would take effect in December when residents purchase their annual passes for 2001.

The causeway fund has a balance of about $7.6-million. The city wants to build that up to $10-million by 2005, when it needs $42-million to repair or replace the deteriorating bridge. The 50-cent fee for coin-payers would not increase at this time, Coward said.

Commissioners said they likely will raise the sewer rates by June 1, and they directed Coward to prepare the upcoming budget to include the proposed increases for trash collection and annual bridge passes.

"Forewarned is forewarned," said Commissioner Ellsworth. "People have to be aware that there is going to be an increase sooner or later, and the sooner that you find out about it the better off you are."

On the up and up: sewer rates

Sewer rates likely will increase by 25 percent this summer and another 25 percent by 2002. Finance Director Darren LaFrance prepared this chart to illustrate the effects of a 25 percent increase on six bimonthly sewer bills. The addresses belong to Treasure Island's five commissioners and City Manager Chuck Coward.

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