BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. - Brevard County utility officials are considering building a new $50 million wastewater treatment plant in the Indian Harbour Beach area, as well as making tens of millions of dollars in upgrades to aging clay piping throughout the county.
Both steps are designed to help avoid storm-related sewage discharges into the Indian River Lagoon, News 6 partner Florida Today reported.
But the steps also are likely to mean higher rates for Brevard Utility Services customers.
Brevard County Utility Services Department Director Jim Helmer earlier this month presented the proposals to county commissioners.
The County Commission now wants a more detailed report that would also tie in projects being funded by Brevard County's half-percent sales tax targeted for lagoon projects that Brevard voters approved in 2016. Commissioners also want the report to detail what Brevard's cities and towns are doing to address the issue.
Wastewater capacity needs
Helmer said the new plant is needed to increase the capacity of the system.
The current South Beaches Wastewater Treatment Plant in Melbourne Beach is nearing full capacity, and Helmer said the Florida Department Environmental Protection could order the county to add capacity as part of its current operating permit renewal process.
If the proposed new plant was in operation during and after Hurricane Irma last fall, Helmer believes that "we would have had no sewage discharges" into the Indian River Lagoon.
Hurricane Irma overtaxed sewer plants in Brevard and elsewhere in Florida.
Brevard County's utility, alone, discharged 22 million gallons from facilities in the South Beaches, Port St. John and Sykes Creek in the days after the storm. Most of the sewage went into the Anchor Drive canal in Satellite Beach.
The proposed wastewater treatment plant would be able to handle 6 million gallons a day, which Helmer said "would be very helpful as a long-term solution to sewer issues in the South Beaches service area. Additional capacity would be available for population growth and septic-to-sewer conversions."
But it's not cheap. Helmer said in addition to the $50 million cost — which includes about $5 million in engineering and design costs — $466,000 a year would be needed for the 12 employees who would operate and maintain the plant.
Assuming the roughly 60,000 customers of Brevard County Utilities pick up the cost of the new plant through higher rates, that would require an 8.5 percent increase in sewer rates to finance the project, Helmer said. That would be an increase of about $4.25 a month for the typical residential sewer customers living in a single-family home.
"Since the design of the facility would take approximately two years, followed by a three-year construction period, the rate increases could be phased in over multiple years," Helmer said in his report.
Lining the pipes
Separately, Helmer said the county is looking at accelerating its efforts to line aging clay piping to further minimize the impact of storm-related discharges into the lagoon.
That's also an expensive proposition. Helmer said it could require $22.8 million to line all the remaining aging clay pipe in the South Beaches services area; $20 million to $22 million in the Merritt Island service area; and $10 million in Barefoot Bay. Those are the three areas that have the most potential for storm-related discharges into the lagoon due to aging clay piping.
Helmer presented various potential scenarios to county commissioners.
Under one proposal, for example, countywide sewer rates would increase by 15 percent, or $7.35 a month, to enable the county to reline all the clay pipes in either the Merritt Island or the South Beaches areas in about four years.
Barefoot Bay's utility is a separate entity, so its 5,200 customers have their own rate structure, which is higher than other Brevard utility ratepayers. In Barefoot Bay, a 10 percent rate increase would amount to about $11.39 a month, and would generate enough money to reline all the pipes in 25 years.
Helmer said his staff "would continue to prioritize the lining program within the limitations of any additional revenue received" to ensure "that we get the most for our money."
Debating how to pay for it
Helmer's report gave county commissioners options to consider on what the needs are to avoid additional sewage spills into the lagoon. It was not a recommendation on what projects to pursue or whether to increase rates.
County Commissioner Curt Smith said, while a rate increase is not ideal, "if we're going to fix this, the money has to come from somewhere. It's something that needs to be done."
But some commissioners would rather the money come from somewhere other than a rate increase — like the half-percent special sales tax now in effect for Indian River Lagoon restoration projects, or the county's 5 percent Tourist Development Tax on hotel rooms and other short-term rentals, which can be used for lagoon-related projects under legislation approved this year by the Florida Legislature.
County Commission Vice Chair Kristine Isnardi has said she would like to see commissioners consider using money from the half-percent lagoon sales tax that exceeds the amount expected to be collected.
Nearly $44 million was collected from the tax during 2017, compared with the initial estimate that $34 million would be raised. In all, the latest estimates project that the special lagoon sales tax will raise $486 million over a 10-year period.
"I don't think it's fair all of a sudden to bump everybody's rates up 15 percent," when there was a surplus in the money collected from the lagoon sales tax, Isnardi said.
Commissioner John Tobia said he supports Isnardi's proposal as "a fair and moderate" compromise to address sewage going into the lagoon without another fee increase — something Tobia said he would "absolutely, utterly and totally not" support.
"I figured it was a no-brainer," Tobia said in reference to Isnardi's proposal, which did not get the support of the other three commissioners at an April 10 discussion of the projects in the lagoon sales tax spending plan.
Tobia also would like to redirect money from the Tourist Development Tax that now is used for tourism-related capital projects to projects directly benefiting the lagoon.
County Commission Chair Rita Pritchett said she believes the county needs "to get more aggressive with the failing infrastructure," but she believes that should be paid by the utility's customers through user fees.
The issue also came up briefly at Friday's meeting of the advisory Save Our Indian River Lagoon Citizen Oversight Committee.
Satellite Beach City Manager Courtney Barker, who is a member of the committee, said the sewage discharges represent a "very emotional" issue with the public.
Barker said she thought it was a good idea for County Commissioner Jim Barfield to suggest that county staff compile a comprehensive report on the efforts by the county's Utilities Services Department, the county's Natural Resources Management Department that coordinates projects funded by the lagoon sales tax, and Brevard's cities and towns to address sewage issues.
Barker said she believes there is a misconception in the community that the lagoon sales tax is not being used to address sewage-related issues.
But committee member John Byron of Cocoa Beach said there is a limit the public needs to understand in how much of a role the committee has.
"It's not the responsibility of this committee to solve storm-related sewage issues," said Byron, who is a retired commanding officer for the Naval Ordnance Test Unit at Cape Canaveral. "It would be misleading for the public to think this is the place to come" to lobby for more money for sewage infrastructure projects.
The proper venue for that, Byron said, is the County Commission.
Helmer said there is no timetable for scheduling a public hearing as part of the process of seeking a rate increase to pay for the new wastewater treatment plant and perform the piping repairs. That will be up to the county commissioners.
In his report to county commissioners, Helmer noted that "staff recognizes the (County Commission) may have alternate funding options it may wish to consider" for some of the new projects, but that "those are outside the scope of this report."
The County Commission in 2013 approved a 10-year, $134 million program for other improvements to aging infrastructure coordinated by the Utility Services Department.
Helmer said that plan included five years of rate increases: 9 percent in 2014, 6 percent in 2015, and 5 percent in 2016, 2017 and 2018. Future rate increases under that plan would be tied to increases in the Consumer Price Index.
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