INDIAN ROCKS BEACH – Pinellas County wants to buy the city of Indian Rocks Beach’s sewer system and city commissioners are considering it.
The proposal to purchase the system was made by Kevin Becotte, the county’s manager of plant operations. He appeared before the commission at a special meeting July 24.
The county is offering to pay the city just shy of $2 million with a closing date of Oct. 1, the beginning of the new fiscal year.
“It is a nice clean date as far as the books are concerned,” said Becotte.
If the sale goes through the County would embark on a five-year improvement plan that would cost $1.5 million. Becotte said the condition of the city’s system is normal, but like all other systems requires ongoing maintenance.
City Manager Gregg Mims initiated the discussion with the county over the takeover back in December.
“It was proposed once before in 2006,” he said. “Nothing was done about it then, but I felt this many years later it is time to open the discussion once more.”
Mims said if the deal is approved he would recommend setting aside $200,000 a year for five years to wean the city off the normal revenue brought in by owning the system. The other $1 million would go toward the city’s five-year capital works plan and could serve to accelerate some of those projects.
“That would still leave us with the Penny for Pinellas money that we could apply to even more projects,” he said.
Among the projects, which could be enhanced, would be additional street resurfacing, curb replacement and additional stormwater improvements.
Becotte pointed out that the county already treats the city’s wastewater at its treatment plant in central Pinellas. He said the county also bills IRB residents for the sewer services on behalf of the city.
“The sewer customers are already our water customers,” he said. “Nothing will really change in the appearance of the bi-monthly bills the residents receive.”
What will change is the amount. Becotte estimates that the average city resident will save $12.90 on each bill. The reason for that is the economy of scale. The city has just over 1,800 customers while the county has 81,000 and doesn’t need to charge as much.
Commissioner Phil Hanna wanted to know if future expenses of the sewer system will end up being paid for by Indian Rocks Beach residents. He was told they would not.
“Expenses incurred by the system will be absorbed into the capital improvement program,” said Becotte. “There would be no increase for city residents because the economy of scale can absorb it.”
Commissioner Cookie Kennedy said that the county appears to have more to offer city residents, but wondered what lies ahead in terms of rate increases.
“We’re just coming to the end of a four-year program which saw us raise rates by 6 percent a year,” said Becotte. “As we look into 2016 we just don’t know yet. The downturn in the economy caused the last round of increases, it should now level out.”
Later Becotte said he hoped it would settle at the 2- or 3-percent level.
Mims said he is concerned about the future of the system and how long the city could maintain it.
“Every time it rains we tighten up,” he said. “We just aren’t equipped to handle anything major. On top of that the Environmental Protection Agency rules are always changing so there is a cost associated with that. As well the age of our system is a concern.”
Mims also noted that the rate the city charges commercial customers for sewer service is about half of what other city’s charge.
“I can tell you in 2016 you are going to be adjusting rates upward. The county can absorb the extra costs; we cannot on our own.”
Commissioner Terry Hamilton-Wollin wondered if the county had programs in place to educate consumers on ways to conserve water. Becotte said not as many as he’d like.
“It is not as robust as we’d like, we have a lot of literature that is sent out with the bills, but that’s about it,” he said. “We did have programs in place but the economy forced us to cut back.”
The county charges customers on the amount of sewage they produce, the city charges a flat fee.
Mims said the city has one employee dedicated to working in the sewer department and that person will be transferred to county employment if the deal is struck.
Mayor R.B. Johnson appears in favor of the idea.
“This appears to be the right move at the right time,” he said. “It makes sense for the budget. If all I have heard is correct then I’m an advocate to do this.”
St. Pete Beach is the only other beach community that owns its own sewer system. All other beach communities have sold their sewer systems to the County.
Residents will be able to have their say at a special meeting on Aug. 12, at 5 p.m. The meeting will precede the regular commission meeting, which is held at 7 p.m.