County rejects utilities deal
Gary Pinnell | Highlands TodaySEBRING - Highlands County commissioners did not endorse the purchase of Aqua Utilities water and sewer systems in Leisure Lakes, Lake Josephine and Sebring Lakes.
Published: November 17, 2012
Published: November 17, 2012
Opinions were divided on whether the county should go along with Florida Governmental Utility Authority's $95 million plan to buy all 90 systems in 19 Florida counties in two cities.
Aqua America Inc., in a Sept. 20 letter to Florida Governmental Utility Authority, offered to sell all of its utilities in a package deal, including four systems in Highlands County.
FGUA, created in 1999 by the Legislature, favors the deal. So did Highlands County Engineer Ramon Gavarrete.
"Public ownership and control of these facilities may provide significant benefits to the county, including the opportunity to further develop a countywide approach to the comprehensive supply, distribution and treatment of water and collection, treatment and disposal of wastewater…" Gavarrete listed six more reasons in a Nov. 13 recommendation to commissioners.
However, Sebring City Attorney Bob Swaine, Lake Placid Attorney Bert Harris, and Lake Placid town councilor Steve Bastardi asked the commissioners to turn down FGUA's request.
"I ask that you say no for now," Harris said. He wanted more time to determine if it is the right thing for the FGUA to buy all the utilities, then perhaps resell the four Highlands County utilities to either the county, Sebring or Lake Placid.
"Put it back on the agenda for the last meeting of the month so that we can do more due diligence," Harris asked.
Although Aqua Utilities has demanded an all-or-nothing deal, Sarasota, DeSoto and Washington counties have already carved out exceptions, Harris said.
The four local utilities could sell on the open market to public or private buyers, Harris conceded. "If it goes private, we're protected by the Public Service Commission. And even if it does go on the open market, folks have not been excited to pay a lot of money for utilities in our area."
His fear, the Lake Placid attorney said, is that FGUA will buy the four Highlands County utilities "for a very small amount and sell it back for a very large amount."
Harris said the four local utilities only net about $20,000 each year; Steve Spratt, FGUA assistant systems manager, said Aqua has invested about $2.5 million in the assets.
"Say no for now," Swaine encouraged the commissioners. "I don't know if it makes a whole lot of sense to get into it."
The commissioners already have experience with an underperforming utility, Swaine reminded. They took the failing Thunderbird sewer system north of Sebring and handed it to the city.
"It's not likely the deal will crash if squeaky-wheel Highlands County doesn't participate," Swaine suggested. Sebring is interested in acquiring Sebring Lakes and Lake Josephine water systems, which have 77 and 562 customers, respectively.
Bastardi said Leisure Lakes' 300 water and 289 sewer customers are closer to the Covered Bridge community, north of Lake Placid. "We have the local expertise and the interconnecting capability."
"If you do nothing," County Attorney Ross Macbeth advised, "that's treated as consent."
"I want what's best for our residents," Commissioner Barbara Stewart said. "I just happen to believe that the best government is the local government. My preference would be to have the municipalities to acquire these systems."
Stewart moved to vote "no consent," which communicates that the county is opposed to the deal. All three other commissioners agreed. Commissioner Ron Handley was absent.
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