Largo approves series of sewer rate hikes

Finance Director Kim Adams said the 10% rate increases, which will be the first since 2007, are needed to help pay for several wastewater improvement projects at the city's treatment plant.

LARGO — Residents are going to notice their sewer bills go up each of the next three years after city commissioners voted 6-1 to approve a series of rate hikes Sept. 1.

Finance Director Kim Adams said the 10% rate increases, which will be the first since 2007, are needed to help pay for several wastewater improvement projects that were required by the state Department of Environmental Protection.

“Over about the last 10 years, the wastewater fund has been undergoing major construction projects to the tune of about $180 million … which affected our collection system, our treatment system and discharge system,” he said. “And now those projects, which were funded by borrowing, the borrowing is now kicking in.”

So, to a household that uses about 5,000 gallons of water each month, the rate increases will add about $3 to the monthly bill each year for the next three years.

To the city, each of those 10% increases will generate about $2 million in annual revenue.

Adams said city staff will revisit the rates twice a year, so, if the increases are no longer needed at any point, the commission could stop them.

However, he said staff is confident the hikes will be needed because the city will have to pay the state back more than $8 million each year over a 20-year period and the city’s sewer fund only generates about $20 million each year.

Adams said it would be “impossible” to cut $8 million out of that revenue stream and keep city services intact.

“We can’t borrow money and not pay it back,” he said.

Pushback

Some residents voiced their displeasure with the rate hikes and said this would hurt those who are already struggling as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Residents are working hard to overcome the economic impact from the COVID-19 virus and all that it has entailed as a community,” wrote Kimberly Joly in an email to the commission. “My family cannot afford yet another cost-of-living increase especially at this time.”

In another email, Patrick Koenig added, “This is not the time to increase an overwhelmingly stressed, financially devastated population.”

Commissioner Michael Smith agreed with that sentiment and cast the lone dissenting vote.

“In my heart, I just can’t at this moment — with citizens and what they’re going through — support this,” he said, adding he had concerns about voting on three separate rate increases at one time.

Adams noted that a 25% rate increase was previously scheduled for 2019, but was delayed, and that this hike was spread out over three years in order to mitigate the impact on residents.

He also added the city’s rates are much lower than neighboring communities.

Citing a survey conducted three years ago, he said a Largo resident that uses 10,000 gallons a month would pay $41.80. A Clearwater resident, however, would pay $89.20, a Dunedin resident $68.18, and a Pinellas County resident $61.66.

“The city of Largo’s sewer rates have been and will be, even after this increase, very comparable and usually lower than most other surrounding communities,” he said.

He added that the cost has stayed the same the past 13 years because the Environmental Services department worked to lower costs and even went without raises for three years.

“I just don’t know any other service out there that is being provided at the same charge as it was back in 2007,” he said.

Commissioner John Carroll said the projects and how the city will pay for them have been discussed for years, and they align with the city’s objectives of investing in infrastructure projects and improving water quality.

“Is everybody going to be happy? No, but is this necessary to make sure we don’t have overflows and we don’t find ourselves in a situation with crumbling infrastructure, I think it’s absolutely necessary,” he said.