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County looks at plan to control private utilities

The County Commission also brainstorms funding plans for $27-million in water

By BRIDGET HALL

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 17, 2000


LECANTO -- County commissioners showed interest Tuesday in a plan that would allow the county to control and ultimately buy out willing private water and sewer systems.

The beauty of the plan, commissioners said, is that the county could help run certain systems for years before ever committing a dime of county money or an hour of staff time.

For residents, the plan could ultimately mean lower utility bills and smaller connection fees, consultant Bob Nabors said, because the county eventually would have more customers to pay for the upkeep and expansion of the water and sewer lines.

The plan was discussed at a utilities workshop Tuesday, and commissioners said they would like to revisit the issue and possibly vote on it at their regular meeting next week.

"I think the board all realizes that this is an ideal opportunity and model," Commissioner Brad Thorpe said.

Here's how it would work:

The county would join a Governmental Utility Authority, a partnership with at least two other local governments, and appoint members to sit on the authority's board.

The board would issue bonds and use the money to buy private water or sewer systems that were on the market.

The authority, not the counties, would own those systems. But the counties, through their appointees on the board, would control the rates, expansion plans and operations of those systems.

"We find that this model works well in places like Citrus County, where your staff wants to have the say-so, wants to have some control, but doesn't have the time day to day to deal with these issues," Nabors told commissioners.

Once Citrus County had the money and a large enough staff, it could take direct control of a system by assuming the bond debt from the authority. At that point, the system would join the county's network of water and sewer lines, bringing more customers into the county system to share in the cost of operating and expanding the lines.

Utilities Regulatory Director Bob Knight said the county has about 190 private systems, although some of them serve single gas stations and would not be candidates for a county buy-out.

In the meantime, the county will be searching for a solution to another problem: how to raise more than $11-million for water and sewer projects that will be needed over the next five years.

The 30 projects are expected to cost $27-million, Assistant Public Works Director Ken Frink told commissioners, but the county has only found $15.8-million to pay for them.

Raising the rates or connection fees could provide some extra money. But Craig Hunter, a consultant from First Union Bank, suggested the county diffuse the cost by issuing bonds that would be repaid over 20 or 30 years.

"It's a tough pill to swallow," Hunter said. "But do you want the present residents to pay for this, or do you want to future residents to help share in the cost?"

Commissioners did not resolve the issue Tuesday and said they would further discuss it once staffers provide a list ranking the projects and showing a timeline of when they will be built.

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