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Commissioners set utility rates for next decade

By Tim Croft
The Star

A little bruising accompanied the action, but Port St. Joe commissioners had little choice. 

During Tuesday’s regular bi-monthly meeting, commissioners unanimously approved ordinances that lock in new water, sewer and impact fee rate structures. 

The ordinances, and rate structures, are intended to remain in place through the decade. 

The ordinances for water and sewer effectively increase each about 2 percent per year, including starting Oct. 1, through the decade. 

In 2031, commissioners, under the ordinance, would establish any rate increase on cost-of-living increases. 

For an average monthly bill of $100-$150, the increase this year will be about $2 per month, said City Manager Jim Anderson. 

Commissioners took a bit of flak from two homeowners at WindMark and have never seemed comfortable with raising the rates this year. 

Unfortunately, it has become a fact of life. 

“It’s not easy to raise the rates,” said Mayor Rex Buzzett. “I had hoped we’d maybe keep it flat this year 

“For now, we are kind of behind the eight-ball.” 

At the request of one resident, Buzzett provided a “Cliff Note’s” version of how the city arrived where it has, with already high water bills heading higher. 

Nearly two decades ago, the Northwest Florida Water Management District made a push to remove consumers from the Floridan Aquifer. 

The aquifer is a limestone formation that is tapped to provide well water. 

At the time it was the source of the city’s water. It is the source for Lighthouse Utilities. 

So, Buzzett said, the city built a new $14 million plant using surface water as a source. 

And as part of an agreement with the county to annex WindMark assumed responsibility for other infrastructure projects, such as extending sewer lines to White City and Cape San Blas. 

The St. Joe Company, building WindMark at the time paid in advance for 2,500 water taps. 

That allowed the city to build the water plant but the additional projects, Buzzett said, resulted in more debt for the city. 

And, after the Great Recession, there were not the industrial customers, the paper mill and chemical plants, that once paid 95 percent of the cost of producing water. 

“For us to survive we had to raise the rates,” Buzzett said. 

Today, the city’s debt is about $16 million and held by Regions Bank, which in turn has required the city to undertake a rate study every five years to ensure operations and debt payments are met. 

“It’s not an ideal situation,” said Commissioner David Ashbrook. “It takes money to make water and we aren’t a non-profit business. 

“(Raising rates is) what we have to do.” 

Commissioner Scott Hoffman added that while utility rates have gone up, the city’s millage of 3.5914 has not increased for at least 13 years. 

And, he added, that millage was roughly half that levied by the county. 

The city held its first public hearing on the budget Tuesday evening.