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The possibility of an increase in utility charges brought Palm Coast residents to a special meeting of the Palm Coast City Council Tuesday evening to ask questions and to voice their concerns.
“Pass this, and we will pack your bags by using the referendum process,” said Palm Coast resident Dennis McDonald, addressing City Council as the audience applauded.
A proposed rate change schedule would bring an 8% overall increase in utility costs starting in April, with additional increases of 7% on Oct. 1 in 2013 and 2014.
At Tuesday’s special meeting, public works officials showed an average Palm Coast resident’s water and sewer bill under the current and new system.
Residents who consumed 4,000 gallons of water — a typical usage rate — would see their rates increase by $4.61 each month, officials said.
As citizens addressed City Council, perhaps one question prevailed: Why are Palm Coast water bills so high?
Charlene Carbino said her water bills were much lower when she lived in Connecticut.
Others cited bills nearing $100 monthly for two-person households that limit their water use.
Palm Coast Mayor Jon Netts responded, saying that Florida has few options for water sources, unlike northern states that have lakes refueled yearly by melting mountain snow and without the need for much treatment. Florida’s porous soil and its lack of large water sources mean that attaining water is costly, and so is cleaning it.
“Not a lot of water is easily attainable,” he said. “That’s part of the cost of living in a coastal community.”
The rate increases are meant to bring money to the city to fund capital improvements planned for the city’s utility system for the next five years, including water treatment plants, a wastewater treatment plant and pump stations.
“I don’t think there’s a soul on City Council who likes the idea of raising taxes, rates and fees,” Netts said. “We pay the same taxes, rates and fees as you do.”
But, Netts said, the increase is needed. If the city does not address its aging utility system now, it would deteriorate and face even costlier repairs in the future. But, he added, the projects are as modest as possible. Of the city’s 19 major control structures, only five are scheduled to be replaced in the next five years, he said.
Some citizens questioned why the city didn’t just sell its utility system, which could currently sell for a price higher than the one it was purchased at and, they argued, could pay off the city’s current utility system debt and eliminate the need for rate increases.
But public works officials said any entity that purchased the utility system would in turn raise rates to get a return on the investment.
“In Florida, water is liquid gold,” said Councilman Jason DeLorenzo. “Why would you give up your control of it?”
Other citizens called for targeted planning that would reduce the need for rate increases in the future.
“I think you have a pretty good five-year plan, but I think we also need a pretty good 30-year plan,” said Tee Scott, of Palm Coast. “This is going to be a continuing and ongoing situation.”
Netts agreed with Scott, saying that the city will need a plan beyond its current five-year plan to ensure that the utility system remains in working condition.
Despite complaints, the council stood firm on its need for rate increases.
“We, as a City Council, would be receptive to alternative proposals,” said Councilman Bill McGuire. “But we haven’t heard one.”
The City Council will hear comments from residents at a final public hearing for the proposed rate changes at its Feb. 19 regular meeting before voting on the issue on the same day.