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Wednesday, Oct 29, 2014
Politics

County moves to take over water systems in New Tampa, East Lake

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— The Hillsborough County commissioners approved a measure Wednesday that will let the county acquire the privately owned water and sewer systems serving two county communities.

The resolution gives county officials authority to negotiate the sale of water systems in Pebble Creek, in New Tampa, and East Lake near the Seminole Hard Rock Casino. Both areas are served by Pluris American Infrastructure.

The go-ahead includes the authority to condemn the systems through the county’s eminent domain power if officials can’t reach a deal to buy them outright.

Pluris customers from the East Lake area begged commissioners to take over the water utility last summer when Pluris came to the county to renew its 10-year operating franchise. Between East Lake and Pebble Creek, the company has about 3,700 customers in Hillsborough County.

The East Lake water system dates to 1960. The Pebble Creek system dates from the early 1970s. They’re among the few remaining small-scale private water systems that once dotted the Tampa region’s landscape.

In recent years, Pasco County has worked with the Florida Governmental Utility Authority to acquire and consolidate similar small water systems dating to the 1960s building boom along its west coast. Many of those customers complained for years about poor quality and high rates.

After those systems were taken over, they switched from well water — frequently the source of the quality problem — to treated water provided by Tampa Bay Water.

Pluris customers likewise have complained that Pluris provides poor quality water at a cost well above what other county residents pay. During last summer’s appeal to the county, one resident head up a pitcher of tap water that looked more like dark beer.

At the time, 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.

A preliminary study done by an outside consultant put the cost of integrating the private utilities into the county system at $9 million to $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.

The cost could run much higher if the private utilities are not “willing sellers,” County Administrator Mike Merrill reminded commissioners.

Pluris officials defended their company’s water service during last summer’s discussion, saying cost was comparable to the city of Tampa. They said the company was fixing problems with storm runoff leaking into the sewer system.

Only a single speaker addressed the Pluris acquisition on Wednesday.

East Lake resident Joan O’Brien told commissioners she thought reports of the poor water quality were overstated.

“We have galvanized pipes,” she said, offering one explanation for why the water was cloudy.

Commissioners were unanimous in their approval of acquiring Pluris.

“No one should have to pay for water that is not up to a certain standard that we all live by,” Commissioner Sandy Murman said.

Also at Wednesday’s meeting, commissioners:

♦ Gave first approval to an ordinance that would let property owners off the hook should their tenants sell synthetic drugs without their knowledge, provided the landlord isn’t involved in the tenant’s day-to-day operations. Selling synthetic drugs violates a county ordinance.

♦ Approved the issue of $21 million in bonds to build Tempo, the fourth apartment building planned for the Tampa Housing Authority’s Encore development northeast of downtown Tampa.

♦ Cleared County Attorney Chip Fletcher to support the City of Tampa and the county Environmental Protection Commission in a lawsuit by World of Beer challenging the city’s ability to enforce noise rules outside downtown, Ybor City and Channelside. World of Beer says enforcement outside those area is the job of the Environmental Protection Commission The commission says it has delegated that to the city.

kwiatrowski@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7871

Twitter: @kwiatrowskiTBO

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