Annual 5% increases in county utility rates will need to continue through 2027 fiscal year to pay for upgrades to two other wastewater treatment plants

Venice Gardens and Central County water reclamation facilities to be improved to advanced wastewater treatment status

This graphic shows the location of the Venice Gardens Water Reclamation Facility. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The director of Sarasota County’s Public Utilities Department has won consensus of the County Commission to plan on three more years of 5% increases in customers’ utility fees to help pay for the upgrades of the county’s two other primary wastewater treatment plants.

Mike Mylett noted on July 13 that the county already is in its third year of those rate hikes, to cover the debt on bonds staff issued to pay for the approximately $165-million conversion of the Bee Ridge Water Reclamation Facility (WRF) to Advanced Wastewater Treatment (AWT) status. The utility revenue also is going toward the expansion of that facility’s capacity from 12 million gallons per day to 18 million gallons per day.

His July 13 recommendation, Mylett said, would mean utility customers would continue paying higher rates through the 2027 fiscal year.

The cost of the AWT conversions for the Venice Gardens and Central County facilities — and expansion of the Venice Gardens plant — is expected to be “right around $225 million,” Mylett noted. If that figure proves correct, the county would be responsible for about $14.1 million each year in debt service payments, a slide said.

The Venice Gardens upgrades have been estimated at $86.2 million, with staff recommending the same technology being used for the Bee Ridge facility.

In response to a question from Chair Alan Maio, Mylett affirmed that staff is staying on track to complete all three facility upgrades within the $500-million budget he initially discussed with the commissioners in 2019.

This chart references the expenses — and utility rate increases — in regard to upgrades to the Venice Gardens and Central County facilities. ‘FPSC’ stands for Florida Public Service Commission. A couple of years ago, the County Commission approved the use of annual indexing of wastewater and water fees, as allowed under state law. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Maio also noted that plans call for the facilities to be hurricane-hardened.

Commissioner Ron Cutsinger voiced optimism that federal money for infrastructure improvements could help pay for the next two projects.

In August 2019, the commissioners approved a Consent Order with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) that called for them to upgrade the Bee Ridge WRF, which is located on Lorraine Road in Sarasota, because of illegal discharges totaling hundreds of thousands of gallons between May 19, 2018 and July 24, 2019. Most of the spills were linked to significant rain events, which caused a storage pond on the site to overflow. The treated wastewater ran into the Phillippi Creek watershed.

Under the terms of the Consent Order, the Bee Ridge WRF project must be completed by the end of 2025.

On July 13, the commissioners also agreed to Mylett’s recommendation that staff proceed with preparations for upgrading the Venice Gardens facility. He referenced an earlier presentation that day by Gregory Rouse, manager of the county’s Utility Engineering Division, which showed the majority of remaining septic systems in the county are located in South County.

“I can’t even consider a septic system program down there,” Mylett continued, “until I expand the Venice Gardens facility,” which has reached operational capacity.

Mike Mylett. Image from an August 2019 Sarasota County video

His plan, he told the board members, is to start the AWT and expansion project at the Venice Gardens WRF in late 2024 or early 2025, when the improvements at the Bee Ridge facility should be complete. To that end, he continued, he plans to seek board approval of a contract with a design consultant in the 2022 fiscal year, which will begin on Oct. 1. He also proposes to ask the commissioners in FY 2022 to sign off on a contract for a construction manager at risk, who would oversee all aspects of the Venice Gardens initiative and ensure that it comes in on budget and on time.

If everything goes according to plan, Mylett indicated, the Venice Gardens construction will get underway “probably in late 2024, early 2025 and carry on into ’26.”

In late 2024 or early 2025, he continued, “[is] when we can start our planning efforts for our Central County facility.”

In regard to the Bee Ridge WRF, Mylett noted, it took close to a year for the preliminary design to be completed.

Commissioner Christian Ziegler, who was elected to the District 2 seat in November 2018, told Mylett he was frustrated about the apparent necessity of keeping the utility rate increases in effect for an extra three years, since the commissioners had talked with Mylett about ending them after the Bee Ridge facility was completed. Ziegler added that he wished previous boards had tackled the WRF projects.

“Obviously, previous boards didn’t feel like spending the money,” Commissioner Nancy Detert said.

However, in June 2019, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis — who was promoted to that position in 2018 — told The Sarasota News Leader that he was unaware of all the problems with the Bee Ridge WRF spills until a group of environmental organizations advised county staff in early 2019 that they planned to file a federal Clean Water Act complaint against the county over those spills. That lawsuit covered a much longer period of time than the FDEP Consent Order. Ultimately, the commissioners — except Ziegler — voted in September 2019 to settle that complaint. Again, the primary focus was upgrading the Bee Ridge plant.

In the spring of 2019, Scott Schroyer, who had served as director of Public Utilities since the early fall of 2014, left county employment, and Lewis named Mylett first to an interim leadership position in that department and then made Mylett the new director.

On July 13, Commissioner Ziegler did note that the Bee Ridge initiative will result in a significant reduction in the amount of nitrogen entering county waterways. He also referenced the red tide problems on the county’s shoreline, adding that the upgrades of the three major county WRF plants “are important projects.”

This May 8, 2019 graphic provided to the County Commission shows details about the nitrogen loads from wastewater treatment plants in the county. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Scientists who study red tide have emphasized the fact that nitrogen is the primary food for the algae that causes the blooms, Karenia brevis.

In May 2019, a graphic that staff showed the commissioners said the Bee Ridge WRF conversion to AWT status would reduce the total nitrogen load in Sarasota Bay by 238,000 pounds a year.

Facts, plans and decisions to come

Gregory Rouse addresses the commissioners on July 13. News Leader image

Before Mylett addressed the board members on the various aspects of the water reclamation facility plans, Rouse of Utility Engineering provided them details about the Venice Gardens and Central County plants. Rouse’s primary focus was the analysis undertaken for each in regard how best to proceed with converting them to AWT status.

Venice Gardens, he noted, has the capacity to treat 3 million gallons per day. Staff would like to see that expanded to 5 million gallons, he said.

Because of the configuration of the site where that facility is located, Rouse continued, the new plant could be constructed on the south side of the property without having an effect on operations.

After the work was finished, he said, staff could look into reusing or repurposing some of the tanks on the north side.

Staff members had considered three types of AWT systems for that facility, Rouse noted. They concluded that the same type of upgrade taking place at the Bee Ridge WRF would be appropriate for Venice Gardens, he added, because of its smaller footprint. That would allow for future expansion, he noted, and result in “superior effluent quality.”

Moreover, Rouse pointed out, undertaking the AWT upgrade would allow staff to expand the Venice Gardens facility to a capacity of 15 million gallons per day, if that proved necessary in the future.

The Central County WRF, he continued, “is not blessed” with the site flexibility available at Venice Gardens and Bee Ridge. Although the Central County plant is on a larger site, on Palmer Ranch, Rouse said, part of the property is under a conservation easement, and another portion of it is a wetland.

Therefore, staff initially analyzed eight different technologies for the AWT conversion of that facility, he noted. Staff finally did narrow the Central County options to three, he added.

This graphic shows the Central County Water Reclamation Facility on Palmer Ranch. The overlay of colored lines represents facets of work associated with one proposed AWT process. Image courtesy Sarasota County

A key concern, Rouse explained, is the fact that the county already has invested a lot of money in the plant. Therefore, he said, “We want to maximize the use of the existing structures.”

Its capacity is 8 million gallons a day, he noted, but it could handle up to 12 million gallons a day. Upgrading it to AWT and expanding its capacity to the latter level, Rouse said, would cost about $100 million.

Staff is not certain at this point, Rouse continued, that the expansion of the Central County WRF’s capacity is needed.

This aerial map shows the location of the Central County WRF. Image courtesy Sarasota County

When Mylett followed Rouse to the podium, Mylett told the commissioners, “Greg and I are thinking that [the Central County facility] will probably be adequate for our future needs, but I can’t say that with 100% certainty …”

He added, “We’re doing our wastewater master plan update right now.” During that process, Mylett noted, staff will determine the optimum capacity for the Central County facility for the future.

In response to a question from Commissioner Cutsinger, Mylett said that the Central County WRF usually handles 5 million gallons to 6 million gallons per day. The average treatment level, Mylett added, is “probably closer” to the 6-million to 7- million-gallons-per-day range.