By Dan Harkins
DELTONA - After weeks of public hearings in which residents decried mounting utility bills, city commissioners first froze, then rolled back rates by 37 percent.
Worried about those kinds of cuts hampering the city's chances of spurring economic development, keeping it from qualifying for financing for a new $20 million eastside wastewater treatment plant, commissioners ended up voting 6-1 at a special meeting on Oct. 24 to leave the water rates as-is, just before the fourth year of annual 17.25 percent rate increases.
To compensate, they agreed to lower base sewer rates $25 a month for the nearly 6,000 households on city sewer, who currently must pay about $229 a month to pay for a system that costs $1.435 million annually. The remaining 26,000 households are still on septic systems and pay an average of $44.87 a month for water service only, which costs about the same as sewage to process but has far more customers to spread the cost across.
"We don't have a problem with water," explained Commissioner Zenaida Denizac, who spearheaded this particular relief plan. "We have a problem with sewer."
Commissioner Heidi Herzberg agreed: "It's costing us five times as much to process the sewage," she said, "divided by the amount of sewer customers we have."
Still, Commissioner Herzberg was the lone dissenter. She said she agrees with offering low-income residents an assistance program to help pay their bills, but she believes city leaders have a responsibility to look further into the future.
"If we want to have community development for our residents," she said at a recent workshop, "we have to build this eastern wastewater treatment plant and we have to look at getting more of a commercial base to help take the pressure off residents."
Commissioners also agreed to hire a rate specialist in the coming months to analyze the utility rate structure and offer suggestions on how to make rate hikes more seamless and subtle. Until 2008, residents had gone 13 years without a single utility rate increase.
"Maybe we can fix the problem we have today," said Dave Denny, deputy city manager in charge of utilities, "and a lot of these headaches we're standing here talking about, having meeting after meeting about, will go away."
The city will have to wait until that rate study is done now, said city Manager Faith Miller, before being able to apply for a state revolving loan for $20 million at 3 percent interest for the eastside treatment plant.
Commissioner Herb Zischkau said the relief for residents shouldn't hold things back for that long.
"We can lower rates now ... and we can raise them back up again in two years when the economy gets better," he said.
Resident Tom Wells doesn't think $25 a month qualifies as relief. Though it's a start.
"Anything over $40 to $60 for sewer on a family of four is excessive and outrageous," he said.
A regular staple at the dais in recent weeks, retiree Ilona Didio, urged leaders for action in her final plea: "I need help now, not tomorrow, next year or the year after because God only knows if I'm gonna be here."
Commissioner Zischkau said helping residents like Ms. Didio should take precedent over worries the city's bond rating could take a nosedive. "Are we more worried about rating agencies on Wall Street raising their eyebrows?" he asked. "Or are we more concerned about the people and businesses of Deltona crying out with pain and asking for our help."
Mayor John Masiarczyk is more for a middle ground.
"We have to have so much money to run this thing," he said, referring to the utility the city bought in 2005. "...I think we need to spend some serious time looking at alternatives to the rate structure and helping the people who are on sewer."