LAKE PLACID — Town Council members unanimously approved an ordinance on first reading to amend rates for town water customers, but not everyone is happy with it.
John Tallent, a Lake Blue Estates resident, said people there have been treated like a “red-headed step-child” with regard to water rates, and still are.
At the April 10 meeting, Tallent said the town brought in the community as water customers years ago when the utility needed ratepayers. Those residents lived outside the town and paid a 25-percent surcharge, he said.
Since then, he said, there has been “no effort to rectify that in a positive way.”
The final hearing on the ordinance is Monday, April 24.
Utilities Director Joe Barber said Tuesday that when the town took over county water utilities for Tomoka Heights and Highway Park in March 2012, the town ended up with two water codes and rate structures.
“It was very confusing,” Barber said.
The new ordinance brings those codes and rates into alignment with in-town codes and rates, per an interlocal agreement between the Town Council and Board of County Commissioners of Highlands County to make those rates equal.
Barber said the ordinance also phases in a sewer rate increase in two years.
However, out-of-town residents still pay a higher rate — 25 percent more — than in-town customers. The surcharges are also on the sewer system development charge, sewer base rate and monthly sewer rate, based upon water consumption.
Tallent said the discrepancy violates the Florida Bert J. Harris Jr. Private Property Rights Protection Act of 1995, which provides relief to private landowners when a law, regulation or ordinance inordinately burdens, restricts, or limits private property, without amounting to a taking under the U.S. Constitution. The law provides a process for landowners to seek relief if their property is unfairly affected.
The only way for Lake Blue residents to get equal rates, Tallent said, would be to annex into the town, which he characterized as an “adverse condemnation.”
“If the town wants to annex (us), present your case to the Lake Blue residents,” Tallent said. “We’ll do so voluntarily. This does not invite annexation. This invites a class-action lawsuit.”
Town Attorney Bert J. Harris III had said earlier in the meeting that he had looked over the ordinance for conflicts. Council members asked for a few semantic changes, but nothing that would change rates.
Barber said Tuesday he’d been working on a rate study for last year. The last rate adjustment was in 2008. Since then, sewer revenues have been deficient.
“We’ve been cutting it close for several years,” Barber said.
When asked April 10 by Councilman Ray Royce how the rate study was done, Barber said he saved $30,000-$40,000 by doing it in-house, using a computer model that looked at past years’ billing and matching income to operations costs.
Royce asked if the ordinance had means to acquire utilities or set up a regional utility. Harris said there was “no effort to provide for that,” but nothing prevented it.
Barber said the ordinance would also put surplus funds into capital improvement. Council members were OK with that if, as Royce suggested, the Council approves transfers.
Councilwoman Debra Worley also asked about an assertion from South Florida State College that as a public institution, it would not have to pay connection fees. Barber said he and Harris would have to look into that.