County considering hiking reuse water rates 3 times over

INDIAN RIVER COUNTY – Customers who use the county’s reuse water for irrigation could see their bill more than triple later this year if the Board of County Commissioners approves a rate hike.

Commissioners debated increasing the rate from 15 cents per 1,000 gallons to as high as 75 cents at Tuesday’s meeting. By the end, however, they decided to send the proposed rate back to staff for further review. The matter is scheduled to come back to the board again on Jan. 19.

The 15-cent rate per 1,000 gallons was set in 1999 as a way to entice customers to use the system. The rate has remained unchanged for a decade and has caused a deficit in the county’s wastewater budget.

“We had to give it away in the beginning,” said Commission Chairman Peter O’Bryan Tuesday when the issue came before the board.

A rate study has since been performed and consultants are recommending the county charge 56 cents per 1,000 gallons – more than tripling the rate. That rate, if approved, would go into effect April 1.

The customers most impacted by the proposed rate increase would be the golf courses that use the reclaimed water to irrigate the courses. Despite the rate hike, no golf course operators approached the county commission to address concerns.

Commissioner Bob Solari floated a suggestion for increasing the reuse water rate to 75 cents per 1,000 gallons, explaining that the county’s rate would still be lower than that of City of Vero Beach, which charges 88 cents.

“I was sort of pulling the number out of the air,” Solari said of his proposed 75-cent rate by the end of the discussion.

Solari’s fellow commissioners did not appear supportive of the even higher rate and the consultant told the board that the 56-cent rate was justifiable.

O’Bryan voiced concerns that a too-high reuse water rate would keep new customers from coming online.

“That’s a pretty big jump,” O’Bryan said from the 56-cent rate to the 75-cent rate.

O’Bryan added that he would like reuse water to remain the cheaper alternative to drilling wells for irrigation.

County Administrator Joe Baird also cautioned the board that the new rates would affect mostly golf courses – some of which are struggling due to the economy.

“We want to be careful,” Baird said. “It’s a difficult balance.”

Utilities Director Erik Olson told commissioners that despite Vero Beach’s higher reuse water rate, the city has a long waiting list of would-be customers.

He also said that a future customer, John’s Island East has expressed interest in joining the reuse water system. According to Olson, John’s Island officials have stated they don’t care so much about the rate, just that they want predictability.

In recent years, reuse water has become a viable and acceptable alternative to drinking water for irrigation purposes and is looked on favorably by water management districts.

“Reclaim water is wastewater that has been thoroughly treated to remove harmful organisms and substances, such as bacteria, viruses and heavy metals, so it can be reused for non-drinking purposes,” according to the St. Johns River Water Management District.

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