Pinellas County Utilities Director says Fee Hikes on Horizon

CLEARWATER BEACH — In Pinellas County, the term “utilities” means drinking water, sewer and reclaimed water. All three of those are necessary for day-to-day living.

Providing those three is a massive undertaking, and it happens every day, year-round.

That’s the message from Megan Ross, the Pinellas County Utilities director, who spoke to the Barrier Islands Governmental Council on Aug. 28 at the Clearwater Sailing Center.

“Pinellas County Utilities is more than just a service provider,” she said. “It impacts the quality of life of our customers.”

That quality of life costs money, and in the year ahead, the cost to the average water customer will rise by 5.2%. An average customer is considered one who uses 5,000 gallons per month. The increase in sewer fees will be 9.5%.

Ross said the cost for service is dependent upon infrastructure needs.

“It is a lot of work to maintain and improve that infrastructure,” she said.

Ross explained that getting the water is the biggest expense of Pinellas Utilities.

“We are a partner organization with Tampa Bay Water, and buying the water is roughly 50% of our budget,” she said.

Another large part of the budget goes into maintaining the infrastructure. It is all about numbers.

The amount of pipe underground is staggering. There are 1,600 miles of pipe distributing drinking water, 1,100 miles of pipe disposing of wastewater or sewage, and 425 miles of pipe distributing reclaimed water.

About 50 million gallons of drinking water are distributed to Pinellas County customers every day. That is enough to fill five Olympic-sized swimming pools.

In addition to that, the Utilities Department had other numbers to share.

There are 23,000 manholes to be maintained, 8,000 fire hydrants and 113,000 meters to be read.

Ross said wherever possible, the utility likes to let gravity do its work but occasionally pump stations, or lift stations, are necessary to help the process. There are 300 of them in the county that must be maintained.

One of the challenges on a regular basis is coping with the rain that falls, especially during the summer months.

“It is important we have systems in place to deal with the rain and keep it separate from wastewater,” she said. “If it infiltrates into the system then we are needlessly treating it and that costs money.”

Ross said the maintenance of the underground pipes is critical for the smooth operation of all the utilities: wastewater, storm water and potable water.

“We have to stay ahead of it,” she said. “If they hit the failure point then we have not done our jobs.”

Among the efforts to keep the pipes in working order is to “line” them rather than replace them.

“Lining adds up to 40 years of life to the pipes,” said Ross.

Looking to the future and in answer to questions from the BIG-C mayors, Ross said they are planning to add meters to measure reclaimed water usage. As it is now, residents pay a flat rate, and there have been complaints that neighbors use different amounts of water. Those who use less wonder why they have to pay the same as a neighbor who uses much more.

Ross said the meter program could begin within the year and will be fully installed countywide in five or six years.

Ross said her department is constantly trying to economize and improve the systems. Most of all, she said she wants the municipalities to know that they will respond quickly to any problems that may occur.