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Swiftmud lifts deadline for Rolling Oaks

The elimination of the 2004 deadline for water conservation will probably kill Rolling Oaks' request for a rate increase intended to help cut consumption.

By BRIDGET HALL GRUMET

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 18, 2001


LECANTO -- The Southwest Florida Water Management District has decided to change its permit conditions for Rolling Oaks Utilities, a move that could derail the utility's proposal to raise its water rates.

The Beverly Hills utility had proposed an inverted rate in February in an effort to bring its per capita water use down from 210 gallons to 150 gallons per day by 2004, as Swiftmud required in the utility's permit. The inverted rate would encourage water conservation by charging progressively higher prices to customers who use more than 9,000 gallons per month.

But in a May 16 letter to the county, Swiftmud water use regulation manager John Parker said the agency would lift the requirement that Rolling Oaks reach the 150-gallon goal by 2004.

While Swiftmud wants all utilities to bring their water use down to 150 gallons per person per day, the agency rarely requires utilities to do so by a specific year, as Swiftmud did with Rolling Oaks, Parker wrote.

"This permit condition has become more of an irritant than a constructive element of the permit, becoming a focal point for criticism, and detracting from the objective that effective water conservation measures be implemented," Parker wrote.

"While the conservation plan requirements of the permit are typical, the condition containing performance goals is unique among public supply permits in Citrus County, fueling assertions that (Rolling Oaks) has been treated differently than others."

Robert Knight, director of the county's Office of Utility Regulation, said Swiftmud's decision to lift the requirement would likely kill Rolling Oaks' pending proposal for an inverted rate.

The proposal faced opposition from a roomful of Beverly Hills customers at an April 2 hearing, with some questioning why Rolling Oaks had been singled out to meet the 150-gallon goal by a specific year. The rate proposal was slated for a final hearing June 4 before the Citrus County Water and Wastewater Authority, which Knight advises.

"If in fact Swiftmud follows through and modifies Rolling Oaks' permit conditions (to remove the 150-gallon goal by 2004), the basis upon which Rolling Oaks' filed their petition will have been removed," Knight said. "If Rolling Oaks doesn't withdraw its petition, it would likely fail on lack of merit because it would be a baseless proposal."

Rolling Oaks vice president Dale Miller said it was too early for him to comment in detail on Swiftmud's decision because he has yet to receive the paperwork.

"The bottom line is if they have really relieved our obligation to the 150 gallons, that would be wonderful," Miller said. "But it's hard for us to make any comments until we know what they're telling us to do."

Before the system's 5,800 customers start celebrating, though, Knight said Rolling Oaks could still see some kind of rate increase within the next year.

Rolling Oaks still must bring its per capita water use down to Swiftmud's 150-gallon goal, Parker said. Swiftmud requires any utility that uses more than 150 gallons per person per day to adopt conservation measures, ranging from education programs to inverted rates.

While Swiftmud will remove the 2004 deadline from Rolling Oaks' permit, it will add a requirement that the utility propose some kind of water conservation rate by Nov. 1. Any proposal would come before the county's Water and Wastewater Authority for public hearings and a vote by the five-member board.

The new rates that Rolling Oaks would propose might not be as steep as the original proposal, Knight said, because the utility would not be under pressure to meet the 150-gallon goal by 2004.

Dick Schnably, president of the Beverly Hills Civic Association, said Swiftmud's reconsideration is a victory of sorts for the residents who spoke up about the deadline that was being imposed only on their water system.

"The residents requested the facts and the figures as to how we got there, and that was never satisfied," Schnably said.

Knight also credited the Beverly Hills residents for "sending a clear message to (Swiftmud) that water conservation is to be endorsed, but only if we are all required to equally sacrifice."

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