The program is losing money. The city considers paying initial hookup costs to attract more customers.
By ERIC STIRGUS
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 8, 2001
LARGO -- In an effort to get more residents to use reclaimed water, the city may foot the initial cost of connecting to its system for anyone who signs up to receive the treated wastewater.
The city is also considering connecting the line and having the homeowner pay the city back over an undetermined period of time.
Either way, officials say something must be done to make Largo's reclaimed water system, which is losing about $1.2-million a year, self-sufficient.
Largo collected $424,000 for reclaimed water service in the year that ended in September 2000. Operating costs for that same time period were about $1.6-million.
"The cost of the system is significant if there are not a lot of people on the system," said City Manager Steven Stanton.
Stanton said he and his staff will decide what to recommend to bring more people on the system within the next 60 days.
Although more Largo residents have requested the service in recent months, city officials have been frustrated that there are not more people connected to the system. An estimated 1,510 residents are hooked up to Largo's reclaimed-water system, less than half of those who have access to the system, but have not connected.
The brainstorming comes as communities across Pinellas County look into ways to conserve drinking water. For years, reclaimed water has been promoted as an environmentally sound alternative.
The talk of assuming the initial cost takes place as the city staff has been asked to find ways to trim its budget to avoid a property tax increase. Stanton said the city's efforts will pay off in the long run, as more money is collected in monthly service charges.
Largo charges its residents $7 a month for the service, but officials are considering raising the monthly fee to $10.
"The focus ought to be what we can do to get more people on the system," Stanton said. "It has to be market-driven."
City commissioners last month voted against charging a fee to residents who have access to reclaimed water but refuse to connect.
Commissioner Mary Laurance said she supported the ideas, although she cautioned she would need to review the proposals before giving her approval.
"I would be in favor of that," she said. "It would make it a little more accessible."
The primary problem city officials have encountered in encouraging more people to hook up is the cost of physically connecting to the city's system, which can range from $250 to $500. Some residents cannot afford it, city officials say.
City officials also believe they have to do a better job marketing the program. Norton "Mac" Craig, the city's environmental services director, said his staff has noticed that some people who move into an area that has reclaimed water are unaware the service is available.
City staff members recognize the potential pitfalls in their ideas.
Stanton is not completely comfortable with city workers connecting the lines to homes. He is worried that the city might get tangled in a lawsuit if the homeowner is dissatisfied with the work or if there is damage to the property.
The city manager also knows there will be some homeowners who will be angry that they spent several hundred dollars hooking up to the system while others did so at a discount.
"No matter what we do, somebody is going to say "Why didn't the city do that for me?" he said.