The Apalachicola city commission Tuesday night took two enormous, and expensive, steps towards improving water quality in the city.
Following extensive discussion, the commissioners voted unanimously to raise water and sewer rates to residential customers, both inside and outside the city, and to move forward on a plan to add a carbon filtration treatment to city water, both strongly recommended by state regulators.
The rate increase, which requires approval at a second and final reading, will mean that if approved, water and sewer rates will rise by at least 25 percent over the next three years.
In addition, the reduced water and sewer rate now offered to seniors age 62 and older, will be eliminated.
The proposed rate hike follows a detailed water and wastewater rate study, prepared by the Florida Rural Water Association (FWRA) and unveiled to city commissioners at a special meeting Oct. 26.
At the direction of city commissioners, City Administrator Lee Mathes drew up the ordinance for Tuesday’s meeting, which calls for the base rate for water inside the city to rise to $10.20 in year one, and to $12.33 in year three, and for there to be five tiers of rates, which range from a low tier of $3.62 per 1,000 gallons the first year, to a high tier of $4.86 per 1,000 gallons to customers who use more than 12,000 gallons, in year three.
The water rates outside the city will continue to be 25 percent higher than in-city rates.
In terms of sewer, the base rate will rise to $16.74 the first year, to $20.26 in year three, and the rate per $1,000 gallons will range from $4.60 in year one, to $5.60 in year three. As with water, rates increase depending on how much sewer is used.
The sewer rates outside the city also will continue to be at least 25 percent higher than in-city rates, with a base rate ranging from $20.93 in year one, to $25.32 in year three. The rates per 1,000-gallons would range $5.75 in year one to $8.45 in year three.
In addition to the higher rates, sewer users will not yet see any elimination of the $10.75 monthly sewer user fee, implemented a year or so ago, to raise funds earmarked for retirement of the $3.8 million loan the city owes to the state’s revolving loan fund.
Mathes said it would take at least a few billing cycles to determine whether the sewer user fee could be dropped.
Elimination of the senior citizen discount, which had been urged by the FWRA expert, drew concern from Commissioner Brenda Ash, who ended up voting in favor of the rate increases.
“If there is a senior who actually qualifies for a hardship, why would we not have a process in place to assist on a reduced rate?” she asked.
“Because we can’t afford it,” replied Mayor Van Johnson.
If the city commission decides it wants to offer a discount for seniors, it could turn to an outside agency for seniors to look into subsidizing the increased rates, but no action was taken in that regard at Tuesday’s meeting.
“Where I have heartburn is when it come to the seniors,” said Ash.
“I’m all for giving everybody we can a break, but we can’t afford it,” said the mayor, noting that the last rate hike had been in 2008.
“We can no longer afford to give that consideration any more. I’d love to help every senior, I’m a senior, I’m 58 years old,” said the mayor. “The city of Apalachicola is in extreme hardship. This board has been good to this community to the point we can no longer do it. I would love to do it.”
Johnson strongly urged his fellow commissioners to agree to the rate hikes, and at one time even threatened to withdraw his support for seeking loan funding for the carbon filtration system if they chose not to proceed on levying the higher rates.
“It would be a moot point to seek a loan. I’ll take my vote back tonight on seeking that loan,” he said.
Earlier in the meeting, the comissioners had voted unanimously to seek a roughly $5.5 million loan, that would both cover the $1.7 million cost of a new carbon filtration system, and fully fund repayment of the roughly $3.8 million outstanding loan debt the city owes to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
In a presentation prior to the rate hike discussion, City Engineer Jim Waddell, with Inovia Consulting Group, and former city administrator Betty Taylor-Webb, now a paid consultant on contract with the city, outlined what could be done to improve water quality for the city.
Webb said the city, working under a 2015 consent order, had tried a number of steps, such as hydrogen peroxide, to tweak operations so as to lower the elevated levels of total trihalomethanes (TTHM), a disinfection byproduct from chlorination.
The state has urged installation of a granulated activated carbon system, but City Administrator Lee Mathes said that attempts to obtain state funding have so far failed, mainly because the city is in default of its payments on an earlier loan from the state revolving loan fund and is thus ineligible for future loans.
There has also been problems in determining whether a mixer installed in the ground storage tanks has had an effect on the TTHM levels, which have been exacerbated by excessive chlorine injection.
“We worked with the minimal resources we had available,” said Webb. “We are still not there. The work that has been accomplished did not get us to where we need to be.”
Waddell described the proposed carbon absorption solution was “a sort of ancient technology applied to a current world problem,” but said it would be effective if applied more extensively.
“The results of tests were that TTHM levels did not come down enough, they came down some, but not to below thresholds mandated by the state,” he said. “They (The DEP) emphasized in rather direct terms (in a Nov. 9 conference call) that we have until June to complete the granulated activated carbon (GAC) project.”
He said that by June 2018, “we can be well underway, and towards substantial completion” of the project, which has a construction cost of $1.6 million.
In addition, Inovia would be paid about $100,000 for its professional service as construction contract administrators, and Webb’s firm, BTW Services Inc., would be paid $24,000 to serve as project manager.
Waddell said pretreatment of the water would extend the life of the GAC, which he said would have a secondary benefit of lowering the minerals that give the water an objectionable taste and odor.
“The (proposed) system is about as efficient as we can make it,” he said, noting that the pretreatment would extend the life of the carbon beyond the three to four months a typical $33,000 load of carbon lasts.
“We feel pretreatment would add at least six months. We could be down to one carbon replacement a year,” Waddell said. “What they’re doing out there now is flushing and running your system to get rid of water with higher contaminate levels. It would reduce the amount of flushing and reduce the amount of chlorine we use.”
Ash was tasked with the job of securing the more than $5 million in private sector monies to pay for the project and to retire the state loan.
“Our objective is to pay it off altogether, which would show a good faith effort with the state,” said City Attorney Pat Floyd.
After the commissioners voted to move forward with seeking the loan, Waddell closed his remarks by saying that once the GAC project is complete, residents will see that city water has “good taste, no odor, and TTHM levels below the regulatory threshold.”