At their second budget workshop last week, an event which typically draws fewer than a handful of city residents, Apalachicola commissioners got an elephant ear full of complaints regarding a proposed rate increase that would sharply hike water and sewer bills.
Speaker after speaker, about a dozen all told, urged commissioners to avoid enacting, at their final budget vote Sept. 25, a 13.5 percent increase in the base rate, and the per 1,000-gallon charges, for both residential and commercial water and sewer users.
In addition, the monthly sewer user fee (SUF), put in place five years ago to address the city’s default on a loan debt to the state, is on track to jump from the current rate of $10.75 to $29 for residential customers, a hike of $18.25, or about 170 percent,
For commercial users, the monthly SUF would go to $95, an increase of $74.25, or about 358 percent, from the current rate of $20.75.
“How did we get here? You all didn’t see this coming?” asked Granville Croom, voicing the widespread discontent throughout the community center at the Aug. 30 meeting.
“If I run into a roadblock I’m going to stop,” he said. “Nobody see this coming? Now we're at a point now where we're the ones got to pay for it.”
Fellow Apalachicola residents Despina George and Billy Fuentes, who serves as administrator of the Eastpoint Water and Sewer District, each called into question the city’s inaction on a debt that goes back to 1995, when the Florida Department of Environmental awarded the city a $7.6 million loan, and the legislature kicked in another $3.9 million to be placed in an interest-bearing escrow account, to assist the loan repayment.
A 2017 audit by the Office of the Inspector General showed that in 2008 the city and DEP entered into a 25-year repayment plan in which the city would pay about $450,000 annually, split equally between the escrow account and a separate debt service account funded by utility receipts.
Over the next four years, the debt service account still had not been set up, and the entire loan repayment accounts had been taken from the escrow account, depleting it to the point where it is now gone, and the city still owes, as of a year ago, $3.8 million on the loan, plus penalties.
“We really need answers why this happened and why it (the audit) wasn’t made public,” said George. “I was just horrified when I found the file and traced the history of this loan.
“We knew in 2008 what our situation was and it’s been hidden,” she said. “Instead of dealing with the problem we pretended it didn’t exist. I don’t know the commissioners have even seen the audit report.”
Both City Attorney Pat Floyd and Mayor Van Johnson took issue with Fuentes’ and George’s assertion that the city had neglected its responsibility for keeping the loan current.
“This fund was set up to pay itself off,” said Floyd. “The state of Florida set up this fund to pay for this. The escrow was to generate interest so the city of Apalachicola did not have to pay one dime.
“It didn’t work because interest rates fell. That’s when the city got put in the position to unexpectedly come up with payments that weren’t planned for,” he said.
“We’ve been to the legislature several times to say you caused this,” said Johnson. “The bottom line is the city of Apalachicola did not create this.”
City Commissioner Brenda Ash stressed in her comments that no decision had yet been made regarding the rate hike.
“This board has not taken this issue lightly,” she said. “We have looked for alternative financing options, spoken to several lenders, and spoken to State Rep. (Halsey) Beshears and (State Senator Bill) Montford. Our goal was to restructure and rework this loan so we wouldn’t have to put an additional burden on you as our citizen base.
“We have not raised rates,” she said. “We’re at a point where this has to be proposal put on the table to resolve this issue. It is going to be a drastic hit and we're still researching it.
“We are taking steps to eliminate the debt but in the meantime we have to do some assisting ourselves,” Ash said. “I understand we have a big community of fixed income residents; we’re looking at all the avenues right now. We have to put it out there in order to come up with a reasonable resolution. Somebody may have an idea that we haven’t thought of.
“We have been putting off raising rates because we’ve been constantly looking for ways to prevent this from happening. If we had (raised them) a couple of years back we would have already gone through this process. We were trying to look for ways that it wouldn’t have to come to this.”
Most of the speakers who spoke out to the commissioners voiced concern about the effect the rate hike would have on the poor, particularly seniors on fixed incomes.
“This didn’t happen overnight,” said County Commissioner Noah Lockley. “For you to drop it on the people to take care of it all at once I don’t think that’s right. These are people on fixed income. What they going to do without? It’s going come to medicine or food, or pay your water. You’re not going to collect no water bills on someone who has to eat, who has to buy medicine.”
Amy Hersey said her research has shown that a water bill should be 4.5 percent of median income for an area.
“We got kids coming to school who haven’t taken baths. I see the 4-year-olds who come in who haven’t had a bath in two days,” she said. “I can pay my water bill but can my neighbors behind me?”
Lillie Turrell said she didn’t mind seeing the state come in to handle the situation.
“I do know hardship, people cannot afford it. That’s twice this year (rates have been raised),” she said. “You just put things on people and you don’t realize what you’re doing. I don’t know what the state will do but I don’t mind them coming. I’m just appalled that you’ll would be putting another charge on us.”
Sally Williamson said she spoke as an advocate for elder care. “You removed the senior benefit and we got a double whammy,” she said. “With this raise you are tripling that for elderly care, there are those who are elderly who cannot afford this.
“Look at your conscience,” she said.
“We want you to tell us how you got here, we want answers,” said Barry Hand. “If you don’t really consider your seniors in this city, this is not going to be good.”
Johnny Byrd and Jamie Liang both said they believed cuts were in order.
“Make cuts, and take money out of the general fund,” said Byrd. “Look at all the departments and see who we can do without.
“I know you hate to cut but sometimes that has to be done,” he said. “People who we can do without, do without, and let’s put more money in the general fund and help pay this bill.”
Liang stepped forward to advocate for cuts to city employees. “I see people on the side of the road doing nothing,” she said. “We’re a town struggling. Do we really need this kind of budget for law enforcement? We need to get to the nitty gritty. The BP money burned a damn hole in the governing body’s pocket. We have to stop boondoggling and pay what needs to be paid.”
Granville Croom’s wife Delores voiced opposition to cutting the police.
“Let us not be deceived,” she said. “Apalachicola is not such a great and perfect place that we can afford to lose any of the policemen that we have. I don’t think it’s part of your plan, if you were thinking about this.”
City Manager Ron Nalley said that because the debt is so large, the cut would have to be massive.
“We'd have to let everybody go in the police department and everybody in public works, that’s the kind of cuts we’d have to make,” he said. We’re talking about eliminating full departments.”
Johnson argued that opposition to city projects, such as against the putting in of the CVS and of the Denton Cove development, has restricted economic development that would have led to more balanced books.
“Several years ago the work camp closed down, that was largest water and sewer customer, we got $60,000 annually,” he said. “That money hasn’t been replaced and every major development that would have generated enough tax dollars, it’s been rejected by this community. This community has not grown.”
Both Ronnie Page and Bobby Miller urged the commissioners to look for alternatives.
“We all know how we got here, it’s gross mismanagement of funds,” Miller said. “You kicked the can down the road and we ran out of road.
“We’ve got to come up with a solution to come out of this problem,” he said. “Putting it on the backs of people who are retired, it’s kind of tough.
“I can think of three cuts we can make in this city right now,” Miller said. “You won’t even miss ‘em.”