2 governments spar over water
By ALEX LEARY
© St. Petersburg Times,
CRYSTAL RIVER -- It was a milestone in the effort to shore up the decaying environment when the City Council and the County Commission agreed in 1997 to expand water and sewer service on the west side of the county.
That the two sides even forged an interlocal agreement was significant in itself, given years of strenuous debate over the issue. But it appeared a win-win situation:
A service area was defined, affording Crystal River the right to extend sewer and water lines to homes outside city limits, generating new revenue.
The county would gain by having leaking septic tanks in its incorporated area hooked to the sewer treatment system; contaminated wells would be closed, replaced by water lines.
Four years later, though, cracks are starting to form in the pact. Now some city officials and residents say the 30-year agreement needs to be revised because it stymies annexation and, more broadly, the city's financial health.
"It's an extremely raw deal for the citizens of Crystal River," said former council member Alex Ilnyckyj. "The county has tied our hands."
Caught in the middle of the dispute are the residents of Harbor Isle Court, a subdivision near the Plantation Inn.
Last week they urged the City Council to seek a grant to connect their homes to the city's water lines. Six of seven water samples taken indicated the presence of coliform bacteria in wells.
Reluctantly, the council voted to apply for the grant, softening an earlier stance. But the residents, who agreed to pick up whatever costs the grant does not, left not knowing for sure if the work would ever get done.
"They are holding us hostage," said one of them, Steve Latiff.
Some council members have suggested the residents would have an easier time getting potable water if they agree to annex their subdivision into the city.
Otherwise, the project may be low on a long list of priorities.
Latiff and his neighbors have no desire to join the city and pay the extra taxes that accompany the dubious privilege.
Crystal River residents pay local and county taxes.
Therein lies the concern over the interlocal agreement: The document prohibits the city from requiring annexation, voluntary or involuntary, as a condition of utility service.
Some council members and Mayor Ron Kitchen want to renegotiate that provision because, they say, it limits the city's ability to expand its tax base.
With costs rising -- the general fund budget has doubled in the past decade, from $3.4-million to $6.4-million -- and developable land dwindling, annexation is viewed as critical.
Despite what some officials believe, there does not appear to be a state law making it illegal to require annexation.
"To my knowledge, there isn't because everybody does it. That's the carrot," said Ken Small of the Florida League of Cities.
Crystal River officials say the issue is one of fairness. City taxpayers should not pay for the upkeep of the water and sewer systems while others enjoy the benefits.
"I have to answer to the people of this city, and everyone I talk to doesn't want us to give our water away," said council member Ray Wallace.
County officials say they are confused by such talk. Under the interlocal agreement, the city can charge county residents 25 percent extra for water and sewer.
The city is expected to earn $60,000 in surcharge fees from 319 water customers during the current fiscal year, records show.
Russ Kreager, a City Council member and former public works director, said the revenue keeps costs down, and he disagrees that the interlocal agreement should be rewritten.
Annexation is not a total boon, Kreager added, because the city would have to assume road maintenance and provide increased police and fire protection.
The interlocal agreement allows for a surcharge of up to 50 percent more than what city residents and businesses pay for services, but the city has not yet justified increasing the amount, County Administrator Richard Wesch said.
If the interlocal agreement is renegotiated, the city could lose some of its service areaand revenue source. The county has shown an interest in the Venable Drive area near Home Depot.
Wesch said the county would discuss the issue with city officials, but he said the county has a responsibility to advance the rights of its residentswho chose not to live in a municipality and pay dual taxes.
"It's somewhat disappointing that we are going to go back and revisit an issue that was discussed, debated and agreed upon when we signed the interlocal," Wesch said.
"What is being lost is we have residents in need of a quality water supply and that need goes unmet while two governments have to hammer out something that was previously agreed upon."
County Commissioner Gary Bartell said mandatory annexation defeats the intent of the interlocal agreement.
The city could "cherry-pick" customers that way, he said, leaving some people in need of water or sewer stranded and the environment at risk.
"When it comes to public safety, we all have an obligation," Bartell said. "We can debate and renegotiate if that's what they want to do, but we have an interlocal agreement that's in place and I fully expect the city of Crystal River to honor that."
The roots of contention were established before the Harbor Isle Court issue.
This spring, the county angered some city officials when it backed away from plans to connect more than 200 Indian Waters homes to the city's sewer system.
Each homeowner in the subdivision north of Crystal River would have paid $7,500 to connect and that was too much, Wesch argued at the time. Unless the project is revived, the city will have squandered $15,000 for engineering.
The city contends that the county withdrew support for pure political reasons; that is, the Indian Waters residents represent a sizable voting bloc and could voice their displeasure in November.
To some Crystal River officials it appears the county is trying to have it both ways and that doesn't sound much like an agreement at all.
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