County hopes a state agency can take over ownership.
About 120 residents attended a meeting at the Club de Bonmont in Plantation Bay on Jan. 22 to get the latest news on efforts to improve water quality. The good news was that water quality should now be better because of recent actions. The bad news was that the future of the utility is uncertain with millions of dollars in debt and much needed improvements.
Jerry Cameron, county administrator, and Al Hadeed, county attorney, gave a presentation on the history of the utility and future plans, and staff from the Florida Government Utility Authority explained what they were doing to improve quality.
“This is not about placing blame or resurrecting the dead,” Cameron told the audience. “It’s about the future.”
Cameron told the audience that 80% to 90% of the residents should now have better water with steps taken by FGUA. However, they have not located all the valves in the community, so have not been able to aid all residents. When residents spoke from the audience about still having bad color, smell or taste in their water, Cameron said to call his office so FGUA representatives can check it out.
The FGUA is a state agency started in 1999 and is operated by a government-appointed board. It has no employees but contracts with local employees.
A history of the utility system was provided by Hadeed. In 2011, it was reported that repairs were needed in the amount of $3.9 million. The county considered purchasing the utility, but ICI wanted $9 million and a sales prospectus said it should cost $1 million.
Bunnell later purchased the utility using a Department of Environmental Protection loan for $5.5 million.
“I was shocked,” Hadeed said. “I knew it was a bad deal and I advised against it.”
“This is not about placing blame or resurrecting the dead, It’s about the future.”
JERRY CAMERON, county administrator
But concerned about the water quality in Plantation Bay and not wanting the deal to “go south,” the county joined with Bunnell in 2013 in ownership and took over entirely in 2015.
FGUA is now under contract to manage and oversee the plant for a couple of months. The county hopes to sell/transfer the utility permanently, but FGUA says the debt issue must be resolved because the cost of the utility would exceed what the rate structure will bear.
The multi-million debt still looms over the utility. Also, the utility has been supported from the Flagler County general fund in the amount of $1.8 million. The utility recently made a payment to the general fund, according to meeting documents.
Cameron said he's been communicating with the Department of Environmental Protection and the county's legislative delegation about possibilities for mitigating the debt load. He is also seeking to repurpose a $1.8 million grant.
RECIPE FOR TROUBLE
Gary Deremer, president of US Water, which had suggested the county contact FGUA, said Plantation Bay faces a recipe of problems: low quality of water in the ground, a big debt, needed improvements and a small customer base.
FGUA has conducted a chlorine burn, performed several flushings and repairs, and stopped the practice of recycling backwash water, according to meeting documents. The company working on getting permits to use other chemicals for water color and taste.
Deremer said he recognized that the county has limited experience in managing utilities and has been providing marginal water.
In regard to the wastewater tank, which many have feared is near failure, Cameron said there is wall flexing but no imminent danger of failure. A new concrete tank is planned, and when completed the existing tank will provide redundancy and future growth.
HELP FOR RESIDENTS
In the question-and-answer period, one person complained that when they bought their house, the real estate agents did not say anything about water problems. In response, there was discussion about disclosure requirements, but a definitive answer was not provided at the meeting. Cameron said by the time they sell their house, the problems should be gone.
A couple of people questioned why hundreds of homes were still being built, and another audience member answered that impact fees are expected to increase and that should slow new housing starts.
One person said earlier reports were that reverse osmosis would be used, but Cameron said he did not require specific treatments by the operator, only better service.
An audience member asked how much utility rates would go up this year, and Cameron said not at all.
Various people mentioned problems at their house, such as a sulphur smell. One person said he is at the end of the water line and a sludge comes out of the tap. In all cases, an FGUA representative at the meeting took down their addresses.