Water and sewer customers with Emerald Coast Utilities Authority could be shelling out more for those services in the near future.
When the board overseeing the agency meets on Thursday, it’s expected to take up a proposed capital improvement fee, $5 per month, to pay for upgrading water and sewer lines throughout the service area.
Lois Benson chairs the ECUA Board.
“We inherited a system from the [city of Pensacola] and [Escambia] County that was not in great shape,” Benson said. “People don’t have a choice about paying water and sewer bills, so we really tried to keep rates low. But it means that it’s slow getting to these capital needs, which are huge.”
The fee hike would translate to an extra five dollars per month for the average residential customer. Benson says the proceeds would be leveraged to bring the total available funding to about $40 million.
Besides new water lines, the plan also would expand the sewer system and get rid of septic tanks. Benson says to a certain extent, that is a public health issue.
“When we have [stormwater] intrusion during storm events, which seem to be coming more and more often, into our sewage pipes it causes sewage backups and then people have to boil water,” said Benson. “We have been working on upgrades to the system to try to eliminate these fissures and cracks in the system. But as I say, it’s slow.”
Given the situation with expanding the water and sewer systems, along with retiring the area’s remaining septic tanks, Benson hopes the proposal will receive the board’s approval.
“I don’t know if it will pass; that’s my best guess,” said Benson. “I have not heard from any citizens regarding this. When it’s that quiet, it suggests that there’s not a lot of opposition to it. But you never know until all the votes are counted.”
But at least one board member, Dale Perkins, isn’t buying it.
“I don’t doubt that there are infrastructure needs, I know there are,” Perkins said. “I think sometimes it get overblown and it’s made out to be like its super-critical and the sky’s falling if we don’t do this. The truth is, we can manage them without establishing a new fee that can be increased.”
As mentioned, the fee is aimed at capital improvement, but Perkins says in the past, ECUA has done such projects with funds collected under the regular fees that’s been in a capital improvement program for decades.
“We do our capital programs that way, we’ve funding things like that sometimes,” said Perkins. “Especially when we good interest rates, like a homeowner does for a big project. We’ll borrow money and pay for it as we go. We’ve done lots of sewer upgrades; lots of water line upgrades, and we do, like any city our age, have infrastructure issues.
“But we do pretty good staying on top of them,” Perkins adds.
That five dollar fee being mentioned is sort of misleading, says Perkins. While that’s for an average residential customer, many customers are not average.
“Most residents have a five-eighths [inch] meter – that five dollar fee meter,” said Perkins. “But a lot of them have a one-inch meter and I think its $10 or $20 dollars there. And then [for] some of your commercial users it goes up substantially.”
The ECUA Board meeting kicks off at 2:00 Thursday afternoon at the ECUA offices in Ellyson Industrial Park.