City Commission majority agreed in July 2019 to raise rates over 10 years to pay for upgrades of aging infrastructure
Although the water and wastewater bill for the average City of Sarasota customer is “a little above average,” in comparison with those of other local governments in the region, “We’re in the middle of the pack,” city Utilities Director Bill Riebe pointed out recently to the City Commission.
During the board’s July 26 budget workshop, Riebe presented a slide showing that the average City of Sarasota customer, who uses 4,000 gallons a month, will pay $91.87 in the 2023 fiscal year, which will begin on Oct. 1. The average Charlotte County customer will pay the largest amount, based on a Sarasota city staff analysis of the other local governments: $113.51 a month, while those in the City of Bradenton expected to pay the least, according to the chart: $63.36.
The average of the 13 local governments’ utility bills is $86.41, the chart noted. Among the others were the Cities of North Port, Venice, Fort Myers and Punta Gorda.
Sarasota County utility customers are not far behind those in the City of Sarasota, as they will pay $89.97, the chart said.
“We remain competitive,” Riebe told the city commissioners.
The city’s rate increase for the 2023 fiscal year “will actually be less than the regional average,” he pointed out.
That regional average is anticipated to be approximately 4%, another chart showed, while the City of Sarasota increase will be 3.5%.
“We got a lot of comments about our rate increases,” City Manager Marlon Brown acknowledged. Yet, in July 2019, the commissioners agreed to the higher utility rates through 2030 with the understanding of the need to replace aging water and sewer infrastructure, Brown noted.
The city’s budget report for the 2023 fiscal year says the utility system serves approximately 19,800 customers. It points out, “The goal continues to be smoothing out any rate hikes and keeping them as low as possible,” yet sufficient to sustain the projects that have been planned.
‘A robust master plan’
During his July 15, 2019 presentation to the commissioners seated that time, Riebe explained that the gradual climb in rates would help generate the estimated $298.5 million needed to upgrade the city’s water and wastewater systems. He emphasized that the list of 135 projects identified through an in-depth analysis did not have “any fluff.”
The consulting firm that worked with city staff on the rate increases produced a chart showing that a customer paying for 4,000 gallons of water and wastewater a month would see his or her bill rise from $80.05 in 2019 to $116.87 a month in 2030.
Riebe stressed that if staff did not undertake those initiatives, “There’s going to be pipe failures; there’s going to be sewage on the ground …”
Then-City Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie joined City Commissioner Hagen Brody in voting against the ordinance calling for the 10 years of rate increases. Then-District 1 Commissioner Willie Shaw joined then-Mayor Liz Alpert and Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch in voting for the ordinance.
Brody was not present for the July 26 budget workshop discussion.
City Manager Brown said on July 26, “I’m hopeful, and I’m praying, we don’t have a [sewage] spill.”
“You just jinxed us,” Riebe joked. “It’s been two years [since such an incident has occurred in the city],” Riebe added. “Our crews have done a great job, working to replace the old pipelines and other equipment and taking care of issues before [problems] happen.”
Brown referenced the “robust master plan” that the commissioners agreed to in 2019.
Other communities in the region contend with sewage spills, Brown continued, but it is better to deal with the rate increases, “as painful as that may be.”
Commissioner Ahearn-Koch noted, “It wasn’t an easy decision for the commission to make [to raise customers’ rates].”
However, she continued, she sits on the boards of the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program, and she serves as a member of the Florida League of Cities’ Utilities, Natural Resources & Public Works Committee. (Ahearn-Koch is vice chair of that League committee, League documents note.) “The City of Sarasota’s constantly lauded for having the best [advanced wastewater treatment system], after Disney World,” she told her Sarasota City Commission colleagues on July 26.
“I think the last thing our citizens want to do,” she added, “is to read about the city contributing to … the degradation of the environment … We haven’t had to do that.”
Mayor Erik Arroyo — who was not on the board for that July 2019 vote — asked Riebe whether customers’ rates would go down at the end of the 10-year timeline for the master plan projects.
Staff will re-evaluate the situation at that time, Riebe replied. “The [rate increase] ordinance only goes through the end of Fiscal Year ’30.”
That ordinance includes a table with the rate increases for each fiscal year, Riebe added.
Riebe showed the commissioners another slide on July 26 that listed the various projects planned for the 2023 fiscal year. Among them, the sewer main pipeline rehabilitation work will cost $1,950,000, while annual rehabilitation work at the city’s wastewater treatment plant will cost $955,000.
The biggest expense on the list is “Annual Sewer Lateral Rehabilitation,” at $2.2 million. The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District explains, “Your sanitary sewer lateral is the pipe that carries your wastewater from your home (toilets, sinks, showers, laundry, floor drains, etc.) to the public sanitary sewer main that is typically in the street.”
The City of Sarasota Water and Wastewater Utility System’s proposed overall budget for the 2023 fiscal year anticipates revenue of $53,659,750, with expenditures of $57,194,931. Therefore, staff will use fund balance — money set aside as a reserve — to cover the gap. The beginning fund balance for the system is $25,092,598, city Finance Director Kelly Strickland told the commissioners. By the end of the 2023 fiscal year, she said, the fund balance is expected to total $21,557,417.
“Revenues are up about 4.4%,” Riebe noted, compared to the figure for this fiscal year. He and his staff keep an eye on fixed costs, he pointed out. “We never, ever, ever want to get into a position where we have to borrow money” to cover such expenses, he stressed.
At the conclusion of the presentation, Mayor Arroyo said, “Mr. Riebe, you’ve done a great job,” noting that the department’s personnel expenses would be going up “a reasonable amount.”
“Thank you for your attention to detail in all of this,” Arroyo added.