Raising rates on reclaimed water in St. Petersburg is an equitable way to spread the pain of paying for millions in fixes to the city's dilapidated sewer system. The city has no choice but to start charging utility customers more as the sewer bills come due, and water rates are about to go up for everyone. Requiring those who use reclaimed water — a discretionary service — to pay the full cost is the fairest way forward.
The City Council will consider a rate increase today that is drawing angry opposition from reclaimed water customers, who would see an initial jump of 26 percent, or about $5 a month. Over five years, the rate would double. It's not an insignificant hit, especially when combined with an $11-a-month increase to the average water bill that is also part of the sewer costs. Both could show up in bills beginning in January.
But unlike regular water and sewer service, reclaimed water is something of a specialty product. It's treated wastewater that can be used for watering lawns and washing cars but is not safe for consumption. Customers who use reclaimed water for those purposes enable the city to buy less water from the regional consortium, Tampa Bay Water. And it's environmentally friendly, because it conserves drinking water. But reclaimed water rates now cover only about 70 percent of the cost, so in effect the rest of the city's utility customers are subsidizing a system used by a relative few.
Those few are generally in neighborhoods such as Snell Isle, the Old Northeast, the Old Southeast and Shore Acres. City Council member Karl Nurse has characterized these as wealthy areas, which is too broad a generalization. But his underlying point is valid: Property owners in those neighborhoods can more easily absorb increases to their monthly bills than those in low-income areas. With utility bills rising for everyone, there is simply no defense for making everyone, including the poor, help pay for a service they don't use.
This is only the beginning of what will be a long, expensive repair job to St. Petersburg's sewer system. The city's utility customers will feel the burden of higher bills for years. It's only right for the City Council to implement the increases fairly, starting with reclaimed water rates that cover the entire cost.