TAMPA — After hearing a litany of horror stories about brown tap water and $100-plus water bills, Hillsborough County commissioners Wednesday took a first step toward buying five private water systems.
Commissioners, on a 7-0 vote, asked County Administrator Mike Merrill to investigate the cost of buying and renovating the private utilities, which together serve about 3,700 households.
The vote came after more than 20 speakers from the Eastlake subdivision near Martin Luther King Boulevard and Orient Road begged commissioners not to renew a franchise agreement with Pluris Eastlake Inc. The Eastlake residents spoke of being charged $100 on their water bills, in some cases when they were on vacation for part of the month. One speaker held up a photo of a glass pitcher with tap water that looked like dark beer.
“When I wash my clothes, they should be clean,” said longtime Eastlake resident William Aguiar, “but they feel like they’ve still got dust and dirt in them.”
After the speakers were finished, Commissioner Kevin Beckner said the board had a moral obligation to fix the problem by buying the utility and providing decent water and sewer service at the same costs paid by other county residents.
“It may not make financial sense, but sometimes there comes a time when a price tag can’t be placed on the moral obligation of government to provide the basic and essential needs,” Beckner said. “Access to clean and affordable potable water should not be a privilege for some, but a basic fundamental right for all our citizens.”
A preliminary study done by an outside consultant put the cost of integrating the five private utilities into the county system at between $9 million and $13.7 million. If the cost of acquiring, renovating and operating the private systems were spread out over the existing 150,000 county water customers, it would raise their bills by from $4.56 to $6.12 a year, according to the study.
But Merrill said the cost could run much higher if the private utilities are not “willing sellers.”
That is likely the case with Pluris American Infrastructure, which owns and operates the Eastlake and Pebble Creek water systems. Pluris officials were at Wednesday’s commission meeting seeking a 10-year renewal of their franchise agreement with the county. The company, which serves about 970 households in Eastlake, had won approval for the renewal from a hearing officer who ruled that no local government in the county could provide water and sewer as economically as Pluris.
Joseph Kuhns, regional manager for Pluris, said Eastlake water bills are high because of “inflow and infiltration” _ stormwater flowing into leaky pipes and expanding the volume of wastewater that is sent to Tampa’s treatment system. Kuhns said the company spent $87,000 in 2012 fixing old sewer lines in Eastlake and is spending another $175,000 this year.
Maurice Gallarda, managing member of Pluris, said the utility’s rates are actually similar to the city of Tampa’s, something residents dispute. Gallarda said a big factor in the residents’ bills is a 25 percent surcharge Tampa charges to treat sewage from unincorporated areas.
Commissioners instructed Merrill and utilities chief John Lyons to talk to Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and city utilities officials about lowering or eliminating the 25 percent surcharge for wastewater treatment.
“I don’t believe it would be that tough of a fix,” commission Chairman Ken Hagan said of negotiating with the city.
Commissioner Les Miller asked Merrill to also talk to Tampa officials about ending an inter-local agreement that prevents the county from serving the Palm River area with county water. Residents there are on wells and their water has high levels of iron, which discolors clothing, and hydrogen sulfide, which makes the water smell like rotten eggs.
After the meeting, Jane Bowman, an Eastlake resident who said she had to give her dog bottled water because the Pluris water made the animal sick, said she was happy with the commission’s decision.
“I’m so used to business always having its way, I was happily surprised,” Bowman said. “It’s been a shocking time.”