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After reclaimed water rate hike, St. Pete council could ease pain

ST. PETERSBURG — The message sent to the city’s 11,500 reclaimed water users by the City Council on Thursday: Give us a year to figure this out.

The council voted 5-2 to approve a 25.5 percent increase in reclaimed rates starting Jan. 1. It is just the first in a series of rate hikes that could double reclaimed water prices in the next five years.

But in approving the first increase, council members left the door open to softening the blow in the coming years.

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Council member Charlie Gerdes said he was asking reclaimed users to accept the initial sacrifice in higher rates to help the city’s poorest residents, who will already have to pay the 16.3 percent increase in water and sewer charges.

"We’ll figure this out next year and get everything smoothed out," Gerdes said.

How? Council member Ed Montanari proposed expanding the system to more users and possibly charging more for bigger yards. Several council members seemed intrigued by the idea of installing meters.

St. Petersburg’s reclaimed water is unmetered, so residents can use whatever they want at a flat rate. But a consultant said meters cut Clearwater’s usage in nearly half. Public Works Administrator Claude Tankersley said installing meters would cost up to $6 million.

The reclaimed water rate hikes were the part of the looming utility bill increases that had drawn the most ire from residents. It’s all part of the state-mandated plan to pay $326 million to upgrade the city’s ailing sewage system, which released 1-billion gallons of waste during the storms of 2015-16.

That jump was too much for many neighborhoods, including Old Northeast, Snell Isle and Shore Acres. The first increase alone would raise reclaimed water fees by $5.43 a month.

Several residents spoke out before Thursday’s vote, saying the increases ignored the environmental benefits of their choice to use reclaimed water. It also reduces the amount of potable water the city has to buy. They also felt betrayed after paying — in some cases, thousands of dollars — to hook up to the system.

"I’m feel like I’m getting double-dipped," said Pinellas Point resident Sharlene Steed. "You charged me to put it in, now you’re charging me (more) to have it,"

City officials emphasized that the new monthly rates of $26.72 were still reasonable, especially when users can use as much as they want.

That argument swayed Jim Kennedy, who had initially voted against the increase last month. "It’s still a good deal," he said after the vote.

City Council chairwoman Darden Rice initially voted for the increase, but ended up voting against it Thursday. She said the environmental benefits of reclaimed water would be undermined by steep increases. Some residents have threatened to cut off the service.

"I worry that a yes vote communicates the wrong intentions to the public," she said.

Steve Kornell, who had voted no on Nov. 20, missed the meeting to attend a conference in Washington D.C.

Nurse sparked a backlash when he said earlier that most reclaimed users were affluent and could afford the increase. On Thursday, Montanari said he didn’t like the "class warfare" aspect of the debate. Nurse had already apologized for his rhetoric, but didn’t back away from it.

"This is really about fairness," he said.

Council members unanimously approved the other utility fee increases. The average monthly bill for reclaimed water users will rise 14 percent, from from $117.12 to $133.57. The bill without reclaimed water will go up 11.5 percent, from $95.83 to $106.85.

Contact Charlie Frago at [email protected] or (727)893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago.

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