Riebe tenders resignation as director of City of Sarasota Utilities Department, effective July 28

He worked to win City Commission approval for master plan for critically needed upgrades to water and wastewater systems

 On May 23, Bill Riebe, who has been director of the City of Sarasota’s Utilities Department since early 2018, submitted his resignation to Deputy City Manager Pat Robinson, The Sarasota News Leader has learned.

Riebe wrote that the effective date would be July 28.

“I really appreciate the opportunity to have worked for the City of Sarasota,” he added.

City Manager Marlon Brown notified the city commissioners about Riebe’s decision the same day, via email. Having conducted their final meeting that month on May 15, the commissioners are on their annual summer break this month.

“ I appreciate Bill’s service to the city and his commitment and dedication to ensure our water/sewer infrastructure is currently operationally sound and improved/upgraded for decades,” Brown wrote. “Bill’s lasting imprint on our city is his and his team’s creation of the approved master plan to implement these much needed upgrades/improvements,” Brown added.

Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch wrote Riebe a note, thanking him for “all [his] work and dedication to the City.”
She added, “I wish you all the very best.”

The News Leader did not see any other responses from commissioners in the emails it received through a public records request regarding Riebe’s resignation.

When the News Leader contacted Riebe this week to ask whether he would like to offer any comments for this article, he responded in a June 7 email: “I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to have worked in and for the City of Sarasota. The City of Sarasota is a wonderful community full of wonderful people! The City government is blessed to have an engaged and thoughtful City Commission, an extremely talented and dedicated senior management team, and a Utilities department loaded with talented, hardworking, dedicated, and community minded professionals.”

In announcing Riebe’s hiring in early February 2018, then-City Manager Tom Barwin noted in a city newsletter that Riebe is a registered Florida professional engineer and a certified general contractor who “comes to us with extensive experience in the public and private sectors.”

Barwin pointed out that Riebe previously served as utilities director for the Village of Wellington and the City of North Augusta, S.C. Most recently, Barwin added, Riebe had been vice president of a global engineering consulting firm.

“Executing projects efficiently, on time and on budget are top priorities for him as well as addressing residents’ concerns,” Barwin pointed out of Riebe. “For those on the interview committee, his expertise and approachable demeanor stood out. He tells us he’s as comfortable working with a field crew on a water main break as resolving customer concerns,” Barwin added.

The master plan and water quality

In 2019, Riebe addressed the City Commission on several occasions about the need to upgrade the city’s water and wastewater systems.

In July of that year, the majority of the board members seated at that time approved an annual rate increase of 3.5% through 2030 to pay for approximately $298.5 million in projected expenses for the work.

Just before the July 15, 2019 board vote, Riebe emphasized that the list of 135 projects identified through an in-depth staff analysis did not have “any fluff.” He told the commissioners that if the city did not undertake the projects, “There’s going to be pipe failures; there’s going to be sewage on the ground; there’s going to be water [line] breaks; there’s going to be continued poor water quality in terms of taste and odor” and regulatory issues with which to contend.

Water and sewer systems, he emphasized, are “critical to life.”

Then the vice mayor, Ahearn-Koch made the motion to approve the ordinance amending the city’s water and sewer rates, and then-Commissioner Willie Shaw seconded it.

“We have no choice,” Ahearn-Koch told her colleagues. “You have to invest in infrastructure. … This city is going to be in big trouble if we don’t.”

Staff members had pointed out during the presentation that the city Utilities Department had not implemented a rate increase since Sept. 1, 2015.

Then-Mayor Liz Alpert supported Ahearn-Koch’s motion, but then-Commissioners Shelli Freeland Eddie and Hagen Brody opposed it.

Almost exactly a year later, Riebe was back before the board members, working to set the record straight on rumors that had been rampant about a potential 47% increase in utilities rates for the upcoming 2021 fiscal year.

Again, Riebe emphasized the need for the revenue to replace aging infrastructure before it could fail. He further noted that new state environmental regulations related to sewage spills underscored the necessity of the upgrades.

Yet another initiative that Riebe launched has been the effort to improve the taste of the city’s drinking water. That began with a 3-2 City Commission vote in February 2018, shortly after Riebe was hired.

While then-Commissioner Brody maintained that he never had encountered a problem with the city water, Riebe pointed out, “There has been chronic taste and odor [problems with [it].” He added, “As a new person to the community,” he had found those issues “readily noticeable, so I think it’s something to be addressed.”

The water has naturally occurring sulfur in it, Riebe has explained; that causes the problems.

“As part of the world-class vision for the community,” Riebe continued, “I think it’s important to have really good potable drinking water. It really reflects well on the community.”

He had hoped to be able to resolve the situation “within the next year or sooner,” he said at the time. However, during a presentation to the City Commission in January of this year, he reported that that initiative still was underway.

Since the hiring of a consulting firm in February 2021, he told the board members in January, the work had remained under budget, at $13.5 million. The commission had authorized a $14-million contract with Hazen and Sawyer of Sarasota to improve both the taste and odor of the water.

In response to a question from Commissioner Erik Arroyo, Riebe said the project is scheduled to be completed in June 2025. The work is a little bit ahead of the projected timeline, he added.

The other goal of the initiative, Riebe noted, is to ensure the city’s continued compliance with regulations for drinking water systems.

Riebe noted that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is updating its regulations.

The Hazen and Sawyer contract calls for the company to design and handle the permitting for improvements at the city’s Water Treatment Plant, which is located at 1850 12th St. in Sarasota.

The Request for Proposals (RFP) that led to the company’s hiring explained, “Source water for the treatment plant is from two separate

wellfields with significantly different water quality. Source water from the City’s ‘Downtown’ wellfield is from the Florida Aquifer and has high levels of chloride and Total Dissolved Solids (TDS). … Source water from the City’s ‘Verna’ wellfield [in the vicinity of the intersection of Fruitville and Verna roads, in the eastern part of the county] is from the surficial aquifer and has relatively high levels of sulfate and Total Organic Carbon (TOC) but low levels of chlorides,” the RFP added.

Further, the RFP said, “Depending on levels of demand, sulfate levels in the finished water sometimes exceed maximum contaminant level (MCL) specified in the Secondary Drinking Water Standards. The City regularly gets taste and odor complaints. Levels of disinfectant byproducts also are of concern. Currently, the City tries to minimize levels of sulfate and disinfection byproducts by using as much treated water from the [reverse osmosis] process as possible while maintaining water quality that is not corrosive.”

The RFP then pointed out, “As demand grows, the City will need to use more water from the Verna wellfield … This means levels of sulfate and disinfection byproducts are expected to increase.”