CLEARWATER - Citing funding requirements for needed improvements to the City's utility infrastructure and projected increases in the cost of water from Pinellas County, Andy Neff, Clearwater's Director of Public Utilities, outlined a proposed series of water and sewer rate increases during last week's City Council meeting. The increases will apply during fiscal years 2006 through 2009, and involve both water/sewer and reclaimed water service. In addition, Neff recommended the metering of reclaimed water beginning in 2007.
The proposed water/sewer rate increases are 7% in 2006, and 6% each in 2007 through 2009. Neff said that the average water/sewer utility customer would see his/her monthly bill increase from $43.47 in 2005 to $55.40 in 2009.
Reclaimed water users will see an even larger increase if the rate proposal is approved by the City Council at their December 2 meeting. Increases of 29% in 2006, another 29% in 2007, followed by 6% increases in 2008 and 2009 have been requested. The average reclaimed water user would see his/her monthly bill increase from $15 today to $28.27 in 2009 according to Neff's projections.
Neff explained that there are three fundamental issues driving the request to meter reclaimed water and dramatically increase its cost: an inequity in the current rate structure between water/sewer and reclaimed, the recognition that reclaimed water is a resource that should be effectively managed, and the encouragement of conservation, enabling the system to be expanded.
Currently, the City's reclaimed water service is a money loser. The projected cost of providing reclaimed water to its approximately 2000 users is $794 thousand in fiscal year 2004/05, while revenues will amount to only $481 thousand; the Utility's 33,500 domestic water/sewer customers subsidize this shortfall. The purpose of the two 29% increases in reclaimed water rates, Neff explained, is to cure that inequity and allow the reclaimed system to become self-sufficient. The subsequent 6% increases in reclaimed rates are identical to the planned increases in domestic water/sewer service.
The proposed metering of reclaimed water serves several purposes according to Neff. The most obvious is encouraging conservation, and the resulting ability to serve more users. Today, there is far more reclaimed water than its 2000 or so customers can consume. But as reclaimed water is distributed to more neighborhoods, the supply will be exhausted in the year 2009 with a total of 7600 customers if metering is not imposed. With the conservation expected from a metered service, supply and demand are projected to cross in the year 2017 with a total of 16,500 customers. The Southwest Florida Water Management District, SWFMD, has been "encouraging" the metering of reclaimed water according to Neff. The City relies on SWFMD grant funding for 50% of the capital cost of building its reclaimed system. While SWFMD has not required metering, its grants are becoming increasingly difficult to obtain, Neff said. Without metering, a $4.8 million SWFMD grant to fund the expansion of the reclaimed system into the Morningside, Skycrest, Coachman Ridge and Enterprise neighborhoods is at risk according to Neff.
SWFMD's interest in metering is not only to encourage conservation; the usage data provided by the meters allow it to determine how efficiently the reclaimed water resource is being used, allowing the resource to be better managed. Reclaimed water is no longer being looked at as a commodity to be disposed of, but as a valuable resource.
"When do you begin to address the conservation issue," Neff asked rhetorically; "sooner rather than later" was his answer.
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