Sarasota utilities director reinforces need for replacement of aging water and sewer infrastructure, with rate increases providing funds for that work

Riebe cautions City Commission about potential for significant fines for sewage spills

This chart compares a City of Sarasota Utilities Department customer’s bill as of Sept. 1, 2019 with those of utilities customers in other areas. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

With “a rumor floating around the community” that the City of Sarasota’s water and sewer rates are up 47% this year, City Manager Tom Barwin this week asked Bill Riebe, director of the Utilities Department, to help educate the public about the facts.

During the City Commission’s regular meeting on Sept. 8, Riebe reminded the board members that, in 2019, they approved a 3.5% increase in water and sewer rates for the next 11 years, beginning in Sept. 1 2019. (The vote was 3-2 on Aug. 19, 2019, with now-Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie and Commissioner Hagen Brody in the minority.)

For the average residential customer, Riebe pointed out this week, that amounts to approximately $3.30 more each month, “or about 11 cents per day.”

The primary reason the extra revenue was sought, Riebe stressed, is “aging infrastructure … needs to be replaced before it fails.”

Additionally, Riebe said, “There’s new [government regulations] we need to comply with,” and the Florida Legislature this spring passed a bill, which Gov. Ron DeSantis signed on June 30, to impose stiffer fines for sewage spills.

Sponsored by state Sen. Joe Gruters of Sarasota and Rep. Randy Fine of south Brevard County, House Bill 1091 includes a 100% increase in penalties for sanitary sewer overflows and an across-the-board 50% increase for all other environmental fines, DeSantis’ office explained. Further, the measure allows for a daily fine until an issue has been remediated or until a Consent Order with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) has been put in place to address the violation.

Many utilities departments use an indexing system to help them keep rates at the level necessary to cover the expenses of operations and maintenance, Riebe continued on Sept. 8. For example, he noted, those indices can factor in increases comparable to the changes in the Consumer Price Index (CPI).

Utilities Director Bill Riebe addresses the City Commission on Feb. 4, 2019. File image

Last summer, Riebe pointed out, when he presented the Utilities Department’s master plan for replacing the city’s aging pipelines, he and his staff recommended the annual rate increases as a step similar to indexing.

In 2006, he reminded the commissioners, their predecessors had to raise water and sewer rates 16%, as the Great Recession was getting underway. The following year, the board agreed to another 6% hike, staff explained in July 2019. “We want to avoid that,” Riebe said, referring to multiple rate increases in a short period of time.

If customers know in advance that they will be paying higher utility bills, Riebe added, they can absorb the extra expenses “much more easily.”

“It’s something that our customers can plan on, businesses can plan on that,” as opposed to having to contend with arbitrary increases, Riebe said.

Then City Manager Barwin noted, “We have a special relationship with Sarasota Bay.” When the most recent, significant red tide event occurred, Barwin pointed out, the local economy suffered. Tourism dropped significantly, as a result of the fish kills and respiratory irritation linked to red tide.

A few years ago, Barwin continued, when the city had a major break in the pipeline at its wastewater treatment plant, there were “rumblings from the state” about the potential of fining the city $1 per gallon of spilled sewage. “We’re obviously paying a lot of attention to [infrastructure issues].”

Riebe referred to problems in Fort Lauderdale that began late last year to underscore his concerns about replacing aging city pipelines.

From December 2019 through February, the Miami Herald reported, the City of Fort Lauderdale spilled more than 230 million gallons of sewage into rivers and other waterways, “thanks to a crumbling system of pipes and pumps that have been mismanaged for decades and are unprepared for the increasing effects of sea level rise.”

A chart in the 2019 draft master plan for the Utilities Department provides details about the city’s systems. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

The Herald added that, in early June, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) increased its initial fine for Fort Lauderdale from $1.8 million to $2.1 million, “to account for an additional 20-million-gallon spill in late February.”

That fine is the biggest for a sewage spill in Florida history, the Herald pointed out.

During the Sept. 8 City Commission discussion, Barwin also explained that generating sufficient revenue from payments enables the city Utilities Department to position itself to offer the necessary matches for grant funds that are available for projects.

Additionally, Barwin said, the 3.5% increase in rates for city customers this year puts the city approximately “mid-pack” in comparison to the rates charged by other Florida municipalities of comparable size to Sarasota.