Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Water Matters

In this space last week the City’s plans for renovating the wastewater treatment plant were discussed. The other side of the City’s utility coin is water service, and there are several new challenges in the provision of water service. Let’s review where the City is now in the provision of water service and the factors we must deal with to successfully provide the required service in the future.
Water Service is Crucial to Attracting New Development
Like wastewater services, the ability to provide water is crucial to attracting new development. The City staff is focused on “right-sizing” our tax base, by attracting more industrial and commercial development. The principal area of interest is SR 60 west, as well as the other areas of the City that are zoned for those uses. But unlike wastewater services, the City has the basic water infrastructure to supply about 5 times the number of customers we now serve.
In addition to wells, water towers, and pipes, the key to water service in the future will be the answer to the question, “How much water will the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) allow you to pump?” SWFWMD has already notified local governments that the amount of water pumped from wells in 2013 will be our “cap” in the future. After that year, cities and counties will not be allowed to pump out of the ground any additional amount of water over what was pumped in 2013. With growth expected to continue, where will the water come from to serve the new customers?
Water Supply Planning
Polk County pro-actively asked all of the cities to join with them in preparation of a county water supply plan to explore this topic. The plan has been completed and there are two recommendations that stand out:

  1. Conservation – the amount of drinking water now being used could be stretched much further if we all conserve. This conservation can be achieved in several ways, including the reduction in the use of irrigation water through the provision of re-use water, which is treated wastewater. As discussed in last week’s column the City is taking a number of steps to initiate a re-use system. The City cemetery, the Longleaf Business Park, and the new multi-purpose sports complex on Hunt Brothers Road are the first areas to be served with re-use water. The provision of re-use water will be essential to the growth of the City in the future; and

  2. Retired Agricultural Well Capacity – like many cities, Lake Wales has a utility service area that outlines the properties that the City intends to serve with water and sewer in the future. Much of this area surrounding the City limits is now being used for orange groves, and many groves have irrigation wells. When a former grove is sold and developed for another use, a portion of the capacity of the well can be assigned to offset the new water use. The question is, who will be the beneficiary of that capacity? Will it be the area where the former ag well is located, or some other area in the county? These and other questions must be answered definitively to avoid jurisdictional problems in the future.

Every provider of drinking water must operate under a permit from a water management district. Our City’s water management permit expires next year, and City staff is already working with SWFWMD staff to prepare the new permit request.

In the City’s water division there have been many advances in the past few years, with the building of the new well and storage tank at the airport, the building of the water tower near the intersection of Scenic Highway and Hunt Brothers Road, the elimination of chlorine gas and the switch to liquid chlorine, and the current task of changing the water meters out to new automatic, radio read water meters. City staff is continuing these successful efforts by identifying the challenges that lie ahead and moving forward in a cost-effective manner.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Two Major Projects: Status Report

There are several topics that are receiving a lot of attention these days from City staff. Let’s take a look at the status of the Grand Hotel, and the plans for making necessary renovations at the City’s wastewater treatment plant.
Grand Hotel
As you may remember the City foreclosed on this dilapidated property when the owner could not pay off liens resulting from code enforcement fines. The City then went through two rounds of soliciting proposals from developers before making a selection. The proposal submitted by Ray Brown of Winter Haven was selected, and City staff began with the preparation of a draft contract. The negotiations are now underway, and an interesting opportunity is being explored. It may be possible for the developer to purchase a nearby property. The property is for sale, and while the purchase is not necessary for the project, it is an opportunity that may be worth exploring. This has resulted in a modification to the original schedule. Negotiations are actively proceeding and are on-going.
Necessary Renovations to the City’s Wastewater Treatment Plant
The provision of wastewater service seems to be something that many people take for granted. As you watch the water go down your kitchen drain, you are probably not thinking of its eventual delivery to our multi-million dollar wastewater treatment plant.

Our City’s wastewater plant, located behind the City cemetery, is now over twenty years old. The plant takes in about 1.3 million gallons of raw sewage every day and processes it to produce two products: treated wastewater, which is available in some areas for irrigation purposes; and sludge, a thickened product that can be applied as a fertilizer for approved sites such as sod farms. The operation of the wastewater plant is closely monitored by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP).

Several years ago plant operators suspected that there was a problem in the processing capability of the plant. An engineering study found that the plant needs the addition of several large components that were apparently left out of the original plant design for cost reasons. These components are necessary to meet FDEP quality regulations for treated wastewater and sludge. The plant needs to reach a treatment level of “Class 1 reliability” in order to provide a consistently high quality of treated wastewater to be used for irrigation. The cost of producing quality sludge has risen by about $120,000 per year due to the inadequacy of the present plant.

There is a large cost attached to the planning and constructing of improvements at wastewater facilities, and these large costs necessitate that the City take out loans. The City had plans drawn up and delivered two years ago for the expansion of plant capacity that would also resolve the plant’s operational flaws at a cost of $1.1 million. The funds to pay for design engineering were borrowed in a low interest loan from the state revolving loan fund. These plans call for components that will increase capacity by over 3 million gallons, more than double the plant’s current capacity. However, with the slowdown on new development, those plans are now being modified so that the improvements can be phased in.

The City now has an opportunity to apply for a low-interest loan from the state revolving loan fund, which has had an infusion of cash from federal stimulus funds. The projected cost of the first phase of the improvements is $8.5 million. In order to give our loan application more points in the competition for funds, City staff is proposing to take on additional customers from a subdivision south of town that has a failing sewer treatment plant. FDEP officials have been urging the City to take this plant on our system for at least the last five years.

The low interest loan payback is projected is cost an additional $2.25 per month for sewer customers in the first year, and a similar amount added in the second and third years. Even with these additional amounts our sewer rates are less than some surrounding cities for the 8,000 gallon per month customer.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Upcoming Community Activities

There are many ways to find out what events are scheduled in our dynamic town. In addition to newspaper announcements, the Lake Wales Area Chamber of Commerce website has a community calendar. The City’s website has a link to that calendar.

Let’s take a look at some of the activities coming up in our town.
Commission Swearing-In
The elected candidates from the April 7 election will be sworn in at the May 5 City Commission meeting at 6 pm at City Hall. Vice-Mayor Jack Van Sickle will be sworn in as Mayor, and re-elected City Commissioner Terrye Howell will be sworn in for another term. Commissioner Kathy Manry will retire and be recognized for her service, and new Commissioner Jonathan Thornhill will be sworn in. A Commissioner will then be chosen by the Commission members to serve as Vice-Mayor. The regular City Commission meetings are held on the first and third Tuesday of every month at 6 pm at City Hall. Everyone is cordially invited to attend.
At the April 9 City Commission meeting the Commissioners decided to set the schedule for monthly workshops as follows:
  • This month the workshop will be held on Tuesday, April 28, at 6 pm in the lunchroom at City Hall. One of the topics to be discussed is the feasibility of holding an “Economic Development Summit.” It is proposed that the purpose of the Summit would be threefold:

    • To review the City’s economic development strategy and to gauge how it is working;

    • To hear from representatives of the Central Florida Development Council their vision of economic development for the entire county and how we fit within that plan; and

    • To get input from our citizens and advisory board members to determine what the City’s focus should be.

  • In May and every month thereafter, the monthly workshop meetings will be held on the second Thursday of each month in the City Commission chambers at City hall at 6 pm. The date of next month’s meeting will be May 14.

Municipal Pool Survey
The survey cards for the municipal swimming pool survey are scheduled to be sent out with this month’s water bills. Please fill one out, attach a stamp, and drop it in the mail… or drop off the completed survey card at the B St. Center, City Hall, the Lake Wales Area Chamber of Commerce, or the YMCA.
SR 60 Road Work
Last week the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) began an improvement project on State Road 60, from US 27 to the Scenic Highway overpass. The improvements will include sidewalk sections, some landscaping, and resurfacing. There will also be a change in the median cut at Second Street.
The City’s efforts to increase our “walkability” continues with the completion of the sidewalk on Central Ave from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd to US 27. A path connecting the two walking trails near the Little League fields on Lakeshore was also completed. The next area for sidewalk construction will be on the north side of Sunset Ave, from Yarnell Ave to Lakeshore Blvd. These efforts are being funded by a portion of the proceeds from the CRA bond issue.
The Great American Clean up
A clean up is scheduled for this Saturday, April 18, from 8 am to noon, beginning at Kiwanis Park. Everyone pre-registered will receive a free t-shirt and a ticket to Bok Tower Gardens. To pre-register please call Jacquie Hawkins at City Hall: 678-4182 extension 233.
A Note on the Proposed Use of the 1919 Building
In this space on March 25 it was mentioned that the 1919 building could become a center for music education as well as musical performance. Those uses, along with using the building for film showings and as a conference center, were part of “The Vision” that was proposed for the building by Dr. Gabe Statom. He reviewed this vision with the citizens attending the facility open house in March of last year. A copy of that event program is available at City Hall.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Facilitating a Fact-Based Discussion, Part II

Two weeks ago in this space I stated my hope that during this election campaign, the welcome discussion on City matters would be fact-based. Over the weekend I opened a daily newspaper to read some fictitious statements concerning City debt. This topic has been covered before, but let’s review it again, with a few more points to consider.

Point One is that debt is inevitable for most cities, not unlike the situation in which the typical family finds itself. The typical family cannot make large purchases, like a home, without borrowing money. Yes, this puts them in debt… but it also makes them better off in the long run. Houses tend to appreciate in value, so building equity in a home is a good risk.

Cities are similar in this regard. There are major (capital) projects that must be done, projects that the City cannot afford to pay for within its annual budget. These are projects that the City cannot afford to save up for because the savings period would take too long. When utilized appropriately, the issuance of debt can lead to a more equitable tax burden across generations of citizens and taxpayers who use the asset being funded.

The Auditor General’s website has various tables that list cities by population category. In our population category, Florida cities of 6,000 to 14,999 population, every city reported long term debt. It is unlikely that there will be a time when our City does not have some level of debt.

Point Two is that when the typical family borrows money, it is paid back in a set payment schedule that indicates that both principal (the amount borrowed) and interest are partly being paid back with each payment. The City also makes debt service payments according to a payment schedule, which includes both principal and interest. In compliance with this schedule, the City pays down its debt every year. In the current fiscal year, the City will pay down over $2.6 million in principal and make over $1.2 million in interest payments.

Point Three is that the City is required by its Charter to prepare a 5-year capital improvements plan every year. This plan lists the major capital projects that are needed and how the City is going to pay for them. In the current fiscal year the plan calls for capital expenditures of over $18 million. Many of those expenditures come from money in the current year budget – like the purchase of police cars, library books, water meters, and various equipment items. It is anticipated that the funding source for some items will be grant funds – like the airport runway extension.

Out of 45 capital projects or items listed to be accomplished in this fiscal year, there are only a handful of large utility projects that are scheduled to come from new debt. Some of these projects are driven by growth, and others are of a lower priority. All of those projects will likely be put off to another year. The one large utility project that cannot be put off is one that the City has been working on for several years: improvements needed at the City’s wastewater treatment plant. It is anticipated that this year the City will borrow over $8.5 million to fix the wastewater treatment plant, which is now more than 20 years old and in need of repairs. In addition to repair work, the requirements for the quality of the treated wastewater and sludge, the two products that the plant produces, are quite stringent. The state regulatory agencies and the federal EPA monitor these products to ensure that the City has the proper quality controls in place. Several years ago the City suffered a $6,000 fine from the EPA for an inadequate sludge quality control process.

Again, a comparison is helpful to put this matter in perspective. Even with this new amount of money to be borrowed this year, the City would still have the lowest principal debt amount in comparison to two similar sized cites nearby, Haines City and Auburndale.

Good government needs an active citizenry, one that is fully informed. Information is available on the City’s website or at City Hall, with helpful City staff members to answer any questions. Discussions are welcomed and encouraged, and every citizen is cordially invited to participate… but let’s stick to the facts!