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County to explore purchase of Lighthouse Utilities

Tim Croft

The Board of County Commissioners unanimously approved a proposal from staff to negotiate a potential purchase of Lighthouse Utilities.

During an emergency meeting last week pertaining to St. Joseph Bay Golf Club (see below), Administrator Michael Hammond told commissioners he had been approached by Lighthouse owner Jay Rish about buying the utility.

“They need more capacity and they need more pressure,” Hammond said, adding that any purchase would likely entail a two-to-three year process.

“Now is the time to see if we can work out a price.”

Lighthouse provides water to roughly 2,000 customers in South Gulf, from approximately Ascension Sacred Heart and Jones Homestead to Indian Pass.

Given available land in the service area, Hammond said, the potential exists to add 1,500-2,000 more customers.

The Northwest Florida Water Management District has long pushed to remove as many potable water wells systems off the coast as possible, Hammond added.

Lighthouse has experienced a series of strikes from nature that has eroded critical infrastructure.

A lightning strike in early 2018 claimed one of three operational wells.

Hurricane Michael followed later that year, carving out roughly 1,000 feet of road and pipe around the Stump Hole rock revetment which took months to fix.

The utility currently has one operational well.

“It has not been fun,” Rish said.

The utility has been purchasing water from the city of Port St. Joe since Michael, but the wholesale water rates the utility pays are a losing proposition compared to rates charged customers, which by law are established by the Public Service Commission.

“They are having a tough time providing enough water and enough pressure for their customers,” Hammond said. “And there is room for growth.”

Any purchase agreement, he added, would entail the county establishing an enterprise fund separate from the general budget; utility customers would foot the bill via rates.

“County ad valorem taxpayers will not pay for it,” Hammond said.

For over a year, the county has been exploring the potential of establishing an inland water source, in part due to ever-rising water rates within Port St. Joe which county officials believe hamper development.

Hammond said a scenario for purchasing Lighthouse could involve an inland well in the White City area that would pump water to the Lighthouse service area.

Commissioner Phil McCroan noted, as Hurricane Michael demonstrated, “Ultimately if the system fails we might have to step in.”

“An agreement would benefit everybody,” Rish said. “We’ll see if we can get there.”

Golf course equipment

The emergency meeting was convened to discuss the possible purchase of equipment from the Hombre Golf Course in Panama City Beach, which has been closed for more than a year.

The $25,000 purchase would include a pump station, a grinder station to sharpen mower blades and two mowers for St. Joseph Bay Golf Club.

Hammond said the county could easily have spent $150,000 or more purchasing the items at retail.

The purchase was deemed an emergency as the county had a deadline to decide and the Hombre was, in effect, a sole source provider.

“It is an extraordinary opportunity,” said Assistant Administrator Warren Yeager.

The pump station was of particular need in case the current pump, which has some age, breaks down as work continues to grow the new greens that are being rehabbed.

The South Gulf County Volunteer Fire Department had been acting on standby in such an event as the golf course has a single pond.

“That was a good deal and it will help us for a long, long time,” Hammond said.

Yeager noted that the purchase would come from the course receipts, which he described as strong with new members and strong tourist activity.

County 386 work

The heavy lifting portion of the repaving and widening of County 386 will begin next week as milling gets underway, said engineer Clay Smallwood.

The $9 million project is one of the largest Small County Outreach Program projects in the state.