County’s Public Utilities director talks of big jumps in expenses and critical need for new staff as he presents his 2023 fiscal year budget to commission
During a recent board meeting, Sarasota County Commissioner Nancy Detert remarked that she never expected to have to deal with so many acronyms related to health care issues when she decided to run for her seat.
And while the commissioners have spent quite a bit of time on mental health and substance abuse issues over the past couple of years, they also have devoted considerable time to another set of priorities that has its own share of acronyms, along with a plethora of technical details: efforts of the Public Utilities Department to improve wastewater treatment and secure sufficient water resources for the future.
In early 2019, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis learned of allegations about years of spills from the reclaimed water pond on the grounds of the Bee Ridge wastewater treatment plant, which stands at 5550 Lorraine Road. That knowledge resulted from discussions with representatives of area nonprofit organizations that were preparing to file a federal Clean Water Act against the county over those spills and others from county facilities.
In the aftermath of that news, then-county Utilities Department Director Scott Schroyer left county employment, and Lewis named Mike Mylett the interim department director.
In the intervening years, the commissioners have seen Mylett make a number of presentations about the county’s wastewater treatment plants, and the commissioners have committed hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrading the facilities to improve water quality that, in turn, will lead to a healthier Sarasota Bay.
Mylett also has routinely provided updates to the board members about the county’s drinking water resources, at the same time that commission Chair Alan Maio has offered periodic reports on the work of the Peace River Manasota Regional Water Supply Authority. That organization supplies Sarasota County with most of its drinking water supply — 65%, as noted in the county’s 2021 report on those resources. Maio represents the commission on the Authority’s board of directors, along with leaders from Manatee and DeSoto counties.
Over the past year, Mylett also has made it clear that county staff initially had concerns about obtaining an extension of a contract with Manatee County to continue providing part of the county’s drinking water. In 2021, the Manatee County contract produced 18% of the Sarasota County water supply. Mylett has pointed out that the contract expires in April 2025.
On June 24, as Mylett presented his proposed 2023 fiscal year budget to the County Commission, he did have good news on that point. On May 24, he said, the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) awarded the county a permit modification to increase water use withdrawals from the T. Mabry Carlton Jr. Water Treatment Facility in Venice, which has 16 wells.
That modification, Mylett explained, will allow county staff to withdraw up to 15.5 million gallons of water a day (mgd).
County staff has been rehabilitating the Carlton facility, he reminded the commissioners, with the second phase anticipated to be complete in January 2023. That plant has had the capability to produce 8.1 mgd. With the conclusion of the rehabilitation project, plus the permit modification, Mylett said on June 24, the facility will be able to produce up to 12.5 mgd, “which is going to be a huge regional benefit until [the Peace River Authority] gets [its] third reservoir online …”
That investment in the Carlton operation is costing more than $50 million, he noted. Yet, he added, “That facility plays a critical piece in the regional network, especially during periods of drought.”
Additionally, he explained, in the aftermath of hurricane strikes on the region in 2004 and 2005 — including Charley’s, coming ashore in 2004 just west of Fort Myers — the Peace River Authority was unable to produce its usual amount of water. Thus, Mylett said, Sarasota County staff used the Carlton facility to “actually push water back through the Peace River [pipeline] to help supply water to the region down south,” including water from Manatee County.
Originally, that third Peace River Authority reservoir was set to be ready for use in 2030, Maio told his colleagues on April 12. However, thanks to what Maio characterized as the work of “great, great consultants,” it should be in service by mid-2027.
Budget factors for 2023 and coming years
In discussing his department’s budget for the 2023 fiscal year, which will begin on Oct. 1, Mylett noted that he was seeking a 4.5% increase, compared to the budget for this fiscal year. The preliminary 2023 total would be $153,747,732, according to a slide in the commissioners’ agenda packet.
Additionally, Mylett said he needs 15 new full-time employees in FY 2023. “Over the past several years,” he explained, “we’ve added a number of positions to try to right-size the department. We’ve been in a very reactionary mode historically,” he added, “and we’re trying to move into a proactive maintenance mode to take care of some of the delayed maintenance …”
His proposed operating budget for FY 23 is up 4%, compared to the figure for the 2022 fiscal year, he noted, referencing “challenges that we’re all facing in the current market.” Purchases of chemicals and pipes, especially, have been affected by supply chain issues and inflation, he indicated.
“We had to cancel all our chemical contracts and pipe contracts and re-solicit [bids on] them at sometimes in excess of 150 to 200% on what we were paying previously,” Mylett told the commissioners.
In fact, he pointed out, details of pipe purchases change day-to-day.
“The biggest hit is water purchases,” he said. “The cost of utilities is going up everywhere.”
Mylett also talked about the implementation of the CMOM program, which the commissioners approved in January 2020. That acronym stands for Capacity, Management, Operation, and Maintenance. As Mylett explained at the time, the CMOM process, for which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provides guidance, helps “utilities run their collection systems.”
Along with agreeing to a settlement of the Clean Water Act lawsuit that the nonprofit organizations filed against the county more than three years ago, the commissioners approved a Consent Order imposed by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) over illegal wastewater discharges from the county’s system from May 19, 2018 through July 24, 2019. That vote took place in August 2019.
The Consent Order required the CMOM program. However, Mylett told the commissioners that staff had been working on such an initiative well before the Consent Order was finalized. The program costs the county about $1 million a year, he said on June 24. Staff is in the fourth of five years dedicated to that effort, he noted.
Yet another project for the coming fiscal year, Mylett continued, will be the installation of an underground fiber network to improve intra-county radio communications at the Carlton Wellfield. Communications on that 26,000-acre site always have been a challenge, he pointed out.
Public Utilities is collaborating with the county’s Enterprise Information Technology staff on that undertaking, he added.
The distance from the Carlton plant to the well farthest from it is 8 miles, he explained. The new radio system, he said, “will help tremendously.”
The lift station concerns
Yet another issue with which Mylett has to contend is the need for more supervision of the county’s lift stations, he told the commissioners.
An article on the ClickOrlando.com website points out that a lift station is “a poop pump. … [I]t actually pumps more than poop: a lift station pumps any type of wastewater from residential and commercial facilities to waste processing locations.”
A lift station uses a pump to move sewage, the article adds.
The U.S. Water Services Corp. also explains that when an area has low land, lift stations are necessary to lift the wastewater to a higher point, so it can flow by gravity or so it can be pumped under pressure directly to a treatment plant.
Mylett showed the commissioners a slide that compared Sarasota County’s lift station staffing to the situation in other counties in Southwest Florida that have a similar number of facilities.
“Right now,” he said, the county has a ratio of one technician per 44 lift stations. “We can’t operate our system efficiently with that high of a ratio, he added. It is not possible to keep up with preventive maintenance, he pointed out. A storm event would create even greater problems, he noted.
The ratio for Manatee County, the slide showed, is one technician per 21 lift stations; in Hillsborough County, the ratio is one technician per 16 lift stations.
To put the situation into even greater perspective, Mylett continued, “We have over 750 lift stations, and we have 14 people on our lift station team.”
He added that one of the challenges he and County Administrator Lewis have been discussing is the need to double the size of that team.
In his 2023 budget request, Mylett noted, he had included one lift station supervisor position, so he and his staff can divide the county into four distinct service areas. With that new employee, he said, each supervisor would be responsible for 180 to 200 lift stations, instead of 250 to 270.
At the latter level, Mylett explained, it is not possible for a supervisor to “know what’s going on at each [lift station].”
With County Commission approval of his 2023 fiscal year budget, he said, he plans to implement a lift station staffing plan “to address the critical need over the next three years.” That will entail hiring four to five technicians during each of those years, he pointed out.
“Are you going to be able to make it for three years, with this kind of pressure on our existing staff?” Chair Maio asked him.
“It’s a challenge,” Mylett acknowledged. “I’m not going to lie to you. … Even finding the qualified staff is a challenge at this point in time, in this market.”
Then Mylett explained that such technicians “have a unique skill set,” with expertise in electrical systems as well as mechanical systems. In many cases, he continued, “We’ve taken folks that have the basic mechanical skills and brought them on as trainees working with our existing staff to develop those skills.”
Yet another key factor is the equipment, Mylett added. “It can take 12 to 18 months just to get a … crane truck. It’s not just throwing bodies at something. It’s putting the whole package together.”
“This is also tied to water quality,” Lewis told the commissioners. Sewage overflows “are inevitably going to happen,” Lewis said, given the existing county staffing level.
“While I gagged at the number the four times Mike met with me on his [budget proposal],” Lewis continued, “it is the direction we feel we need to go in.”