(Click “Like” to become a fan of the Palm Coast Observer.)Palm Coast residents will see their utility bills increase by an average of $4.61 per month starting April 1.
The City Council voted 4-1 to increase rates, although on a smaller scale than originally proposed in January.
The adopted rate schedule pushes growth-related capital projects outside of the scope of the city’s current five-year plan, reducing the need for capital projects by $24 million. This will require the city to reevaluate its capital improvement plan in 2015. If the city’s population grows enough to require planning for an additional wastewater treatment (sewer) plant, rates could rise again then.
Rates will increase by 8% for fiscal year 2013 and an additional 4% for fiscal year 2014, which begins in October. Rates are currently scheduled to rise another 4% for fiscal year 2015, but this could change.
Councilman Bill Lewis made the motion to adopt the utility rate increase after residents packed the Palm Coast Community Center to urge council members to postpone their decision. The meeting opened with several presentations about the financial state of the utility, the proposed capital improvement projects and a breakdown of the city’s two options: the original proposal and the one that passed.
Council members punctuated the presentations with questions, and residents said that because of this, it was clear that council members did not fully understand the matter they were voting on.
“It seems to me that there was a lot of information given here that even the council was asking for clarification on,” resident Diane Layng said. “I would encourage the council to postpone making a decision on raising our rates until you have had another opportunity to digest the information given today.”
Another resident, Vincent A. Liguori, told City Council that voting Tuesday would equate to a “complete disregard for your citizenry.”
“You are nowhere near ready to make a decision, based on the nature of your questions today,” he said.
However, Alan Peterson, who is a former County Commissioner and Palm Coast City Councilman, expressed support for the utility increases.
“We’ve got new regulations; we’ve got to meet them,” Peterson said, referencing the $10 million project planned to bring Palm Coast’s Water Treatment Plant 2 up to new Environmental Protection Agency standards. “If you try to fight the EPA, you’re going to have a mess of legal problems.”
Councilman Jason DeLorenzo seconded the motion. “As far as postponing the vote, to my count, this is our sixth time we have met about this, several times with public comment,” DeLorenzo said. “I believe that we need to make these improvements. ... If we continue to wait, that’s just going to put further pressure on the rate payers.”
DeLorenzo said he preferred the option to push growth-related infrastructure projects back because doing so would put more of the responsiblity of paying for greater utility capacity on the shoulders of new residents. It would also be easier to tell whether the city was growing fast enough to necessitate greater capacity.
Councilman Bill McGuire cast the dissenting vote. He said he didn’t feel city staff had exhausted all options. He suggested exploring ways to save money by doing more in-house.
However, DeLorenzo said many departments, such as the building department, are enterprise funds, so any money saved there could not be used for utility projects, anyway.
“At this point, I think it would be irresponsible not to pass this motion,” Palm Coast Mayor Jon Netts said moments before the vote.