110 W. New York Ave.
DeLand, FL 32720
Former City Commission candidate talks about water, sewage
By Rob Field
posted Dec 6, 2012 - 11:21:22am
Editor’s note: The following analysis was written for The Beacon by Deltona City Commission candidate Rob Field, who lost his race for the District 2 seat to Webster Barnaby in the Nov. 6 election. During the campaign, Field studied Deltona’s water-and-sewage situation in depth, and wanted to share what he learned with residents of Deltona.
The cost of water and sewage service were important issues in this year’s Deltona City Commission elections. There is a great deal of public anger about years of annual water-rate increases of more than 17 percent, and some customers, particularly Deltona’s 6,000 sewage customers, face significant financial hardships for reasons not of their making.
While discontent with high sewage rates and rapid water-rate increases is widespread, few Deltonans know how the city got in this position. Water rates for city customers were frozen for 13 years, damaging water quality and safety, and threatening the economic future of Deltona.
During the Wall Street crash that precipitated the Great Recession, the Deltona City Commission was told by outside consultants that to meet the requirements of our bond covenant and permit expansion of our wastewater system, five years of 17.25-percent increases in the water rate were needed.
After three years of the programmed rate hikes, Deltona’s water rates are still lower than the state average and lower than customers on the north side of Deltona pay Deltona North, the county-owned utility that serves that area.
The increases provided funds for repair and replacement of pipes and infrastructure, which are almost 50 years old in some places, and placed the city on track to building a needed wastewater-treatment plant in the development corridor along State Route 415. The Deltona City Commission has now frozen the rates, threatening these goals.
Some water-only customers do pay bills of hundreds of dollars a month, but mostly because the city, meeting a requirement from the St. Johns River Water Management District, must charge customers who consume more than 18,000 gallons per month almost six times as much as those who use less than 6,000 gallons. The residents with these high water bills are almost all trying to grow St. Augustine grass or other plants not adapted to Deltona’s climate and soil. Some customers use 35,000 gallons of treated drinking water a month on their lawns, and complain loudly about their exorbitant bills.
Hardest hit have been Deltona’s sewage customers, approximately 6,000 accounts, who pay more than county customers of Deltona North. Although sewage-metering is capped at 6,000 gallons per month, the average Deltona sewage customer pays more than his or her neighbor who is served by Deltona North.
A high base charge and a high metered rate for sewage combine to cause great hardship among those on fixed or modest incomes, who are routinely saddled with combined water-and-sewage bills of more than $100.
The Deltona City Commission’s recent decision to reduce the base charge by $25 per month may help those living alone, but rates for larger users are still too high.
The reason for their hardship is that 6,000 customers must pay for the maintenance of a citywide infrastructure. The only sustainable way to reduce their bills is to put more customers on the system.
Because our current wastewater plant is running at 86-percent capacity, that means one of two things: The city must buy the county’s Deltona North system, which is operating at half capacity; or the city must build a wastewater-treatment plant on the S.R. 415 corridor.
It is at the county’s discretion to sell Deltona North, and county officials have been inconsistent about their intentions, sometimes declaring it off the table, sometimes hinting they would sell for three years’ revenue, sometimes for less.
The advantage of a purchase is that it would come with customers already hooked up and may permit immediate rate reductions for Deltona sewage customers, as well as water-rate cuts for those on Deltona North water. A purchase would, however, leave Deltona with less excess capacity than construction of the new plant on S.R. 415. That would limit the city’s ability to attract a large new employer, such as a hospital.
Building the new plant would also solve the capacity issue, and address the extreme age of many residential septic systems, but might impose hookup costs on the city or septic customers.
The only fair way to finance that expansion is through a bond issue, so future generations who benefit from the sewage system would help defray the costs. A bond issue, however, may be impossible given the current anti-government political environment.
Rate increases to finance sewage hookups would be equally unpopular. That may leave the Deltona North option as the only feasible next step that would address the costs to existing sewage customers, and that depends on the county’s willingness to cooperate.
The Deltona City Commission’s recent moves to cut, and, later, to freeze, water rates endangers both of these options. Staff and commissioners talk past each other, with many commissioners consistently disbelieving professional staffers and outside consultants.
There being no civil or hydrological engineers on the Deltona City Commission, the basis of this disbelief remains unclear.
This issue alone has the potential to endanger the future of Deltona. One hopes that a more sustainable consensus can be found.
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