Vero Beach council considers easing sewer rate hike

VERO BEACH — In an effort to avoid a second 18 percent increase in sewer rates in a six-month period, the Vero Beach City Council voted to take the first step in tamping down a large sewer rate hike that would have taken effect on April 1.

Councilmen Tom White and Ken Daige had asked for the council to take a hard look at whether the second half of the increase was required or if costs could be cut to make the additional increase unnecessary. Vero Beach utility customers experienced a first set of increases on Oct. 1 following a rate study conducted in 2009 to plan for the funding of operating expenses and capital expenditures, taking into account water management restrictions and declining water usage by the public due to conservation.

In response to this request, Water and Sewer Director Rob Bolton presented the city council a retooling his department’s budget. He said the total operating expenses have been reduced mid-year by $213,000 from the original budget.

Another reduction was made because, due to the timing of start and completion of projects payments on loans from the State Revolving Fund were delayed, requiring less revenue this year to cover them.

Current year capital projects have been reduced from $7 million to $2.7 million, a portion of this being due to the freezing of any non-essential capital improvements outside the city limits. About 38 percent of the city’s water and sewer customers live in the unincorporated county and in the Town of Indian River Shores.

Councilman Brian Heady said he wanted to make sure that the city, in the interest of cutting costs, does not scrimp on maintenance work that would be needed to keep the city’s systems running.

Bolton said all required and recommended service and maintenance would still be completed.

Rates went up 18 percent in October, along with an increase in drinking water rates. The second half of the sewer rate increases, which were approved by the city council, was scheduled to raise the usage rate from $2.93 to $4.06 per 1,000 gallons used.

Bolton said this would have resulted in a $6.78 increase on the typical bill of a customer with 6,000 gallons of sewage service.

The proposed revised increase would raise the rate from $2.93 to $3.59 per 1,000 gallons. Bolton said that, instead of the $6.78 increase, typical water customers could see an increase of $3.96 per month.

“Next year, there shouldn’t be any problem in balancing the budget,” Bolton said, citing that two employees are retiring and those positions could be eliminated.

Mayor Kevin Sawnick, who initially voted for the two-stage increase over the summer, applauded the staff’s ability to keep costs down.

“I know every little bit we do to reduce things helps,” hesaid.

White also expressed his appreciation that the city is doing something to keep from placing an even larger burden on ratepayers.

“The bills can still be paid and the projects that we’re involved in now and then potentially on Oct. 1 we could be looking at another decrease,” White said.

The measure will need to be brought forth in ordinance form, requiring public hearing, which will take place during a March 29 budget workshop, at which the city’s health benefits and pension plan will also be discussed.

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