Fort Pierce OKs utility increases to help relocate aging wastewater plant off lagoon
FORT PIERCE— Fort Pierce Utilities Authority is turning to its customers to help move its aging wastewater treatment plant off the Indian River Lagoon.
In 3-2 votes Monday, the City Commission approved 10% increases for water and sewer rates in July and October.
"This is one of the biggest things we've ever done, and it's cause for celebration," Mayor Linda Hudson said. "But it also is going to bring some pain."
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The commission also OK'd increases for electric and gas rates — 5% in July and 4.5% in October — to help fund installing smart meters and expand gas services.
Commissioners Arnold Gaines and Curtis Johnson Jr. — both representing District 1, largely the northwestern sector of the city — voted against all rate increases.
The FPUA board approved the rate hikes May 3.
An average FPUA customer — using 6,000 gallons of water, 1,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity and 1,300 cubic feet of natural gas monthly — would pay an extra $12.17 in July and another $12.97 in October.
The water and sewer increases alone are expected to generate about $7 million annually with half, or $3.5 million, allocated towards relocating the 62-year-old plant from Hutchinson Island to the Treasure Coast Energy Center on Glades Cut-Off Road, according to FPUA Director Javier Cisneros.
The increases are necessary to demonstrate to potential lenders that FPUA can borrow money for the plant relocation, Cisneros said.
And while the utilities authority is seeking state grants to help lower the cost of the multi-million-dollar project, Gaines and Johnson Jr. — who agree with their fellow commissioners that moving the plant is needed — expressed concerns about raising rates before knowing how much money the city could receive.
"I don’t take this lightly. I’ve agonized over this quite a bit," Johnson Jr. said. "... I wish we would have done this a little bit differently, gotten some of those grants upfront so we can know exactly what we're working with."
If FPUA gets grants, rates potentially could drop, Cisneros said.
"Expansion also is a great opportunity for us to maintain lower rates," he added.
Environmental concerns and the hope of future economic development driven the city for decades to move the plant. Pressure also is mounting from regulators such as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
FPUA already has spent more than $26 million on the ambitious relocation plan, which could begin in January and be completed by the end of 2024.
FPUA expects to have a total project cost estimate once design plans are 60% done.
Olivia McKelvey is TCPalm's watchdog reporter for St. Lucie County. You can reach her at email@example.com, 772-521-4380 and on Twitter @olivia_mckelvey.