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County moves ahead on purchase of Lighthouse Utilities

By Tim Croft
The Star

A two- or three-year process became considerably compressed Wednesday. 

The Board of County Commissioners, during a special meeting, approved taking the next steps to purchase Lighthouse Utilities. 

The purchase price is $3 million, pending an appraisal, with another $1 million slated for infrastructure improvements. 

Those improvements would be replacing the well at Deadman’s Curve, so-called well No. 1. 

The county would bond the purchase price, which will be finalized after an appraisal. 

Commissioners cautioned about getting locked in on a price before a full appraisal.

The county would establish an enterprise fund into which the roughly 2,000 users on the system, which provides water to South Gulf County roughly from Jones Homestead to Indian Pass, would pay for the system. 

“We hope this project, getting it going at this stage, will be ready by March when the tourists return,” said Don Butler, former administrator who provided a presentation in the absence of Administrator Michael Hammond. 

Taxpayers would not be paying the cost of the project, said county attorney Jeremy Novak. 

The initial timeline of two or three years went out the window when it was determined that county ad valorem taxes could not be used to back a loan for the utility to undertake infrastructure improvements. 

Backing the loan, which commissioners did in July, was perceived as a way to make improvements to the system while the county negotiated a purchase price. 

However, Butler said, the county’s bond counsel indicated the money could be bonded out of funds generated within the enterprise fund. 

And, attorney Jeremy Novak said, the county would like to have control over the infrastructure improvements and wanted to meet what commissioners already determined a crisis. 

“It’s growing down there and they need water,” said Commissioner Ward McDaniel. “We need to put in the proper infrastructure. 

“This will help. I am 100 percent behind this project.” 

Lighthouse Utilities has been experiencing issues since before Hurricane Michael. 

Lightning knocked out the No. 1 well and Michael destroyed another, leaving the utility with a single operating well. 

For months the utility has been purchasing water from the city of Port St. Joe at a higher price that the utility charges its customers. 

In addition, there have been chronic issues with pressure and outages, and that was before peak times during the summer months. 

“I just want to move forward and be cautious for the county and the seller,” said Commissioner Phil McCroan. “We have to move forward; it is not getting any better.”  

And commissioners also see the potential for at 1,500 to 2,000 more customers given construction occurring in the south end of the county. 

Dewberry Engineers has already engineered improvements for the seller Jay Rish and has all necessary bid documents. 

The county would go out for bids for the infrastructure improvements, which will require at least another month.