Two hours of angry testimony persuaded Charlotte County Commissioners to drop the last two years of planned water and sewer rate increases.
That leaves three years of 7 percent rate increases — the first to take effect on April 1.
The board voted unanimously Tuesday to drop two years of 5 percent rate increases that would have taken effect in 2022 and 2023. They approved the first three years of 7 percent increases. That was what consultants had recommended.
Most of the packed auditorium had left by the time commissioners took their vote. One resident, Lauren Schweer, said the decision to eliminate the last two years of increases was only a modest improvement.
“It’s better than having the two 5 percent years, but still, it’s an ungodly amount of money,” she said of the overall increase.
With Tuesday’s vote, combined rates for a standard household (4,000 gallons of water a month) will rise from the current $92.69 to $99.16 in April. That will increase to $106.09 in 2020 and $113.51 in 2021. In the plan that commissioners discarded, the combined monthly rates for a standard household would have risen to $125.15 by 2023.
Reaction by residents was intense, given that the county rates are already among the highest in the region.
Commissioners were accused of having delusions of grandeur, of arrogance, of incompetence, and of indifference.
“Maybe you should reduce your salaries,” said resident Kathleen Coppola, who is also a commissioner for the Punta Gorda Airport. “We’re all going to be out there panhandling to pay for water and sewer.”
“You act as if we were a bottomless piggy bank,” said Roger Strahan. “Well, this piggy bank is broken.”
Causes for the county’s unusually high rates include:
- $100 million debt incurred in the 1990s when the county was forced to buy the private utility from bankrupt General Development Corporation
- Exceptionally low density spread of Charlotte County residential development requiring more miles of pipe for few people
- With one of the oldest demographics in the country, the county has smaller households and many winter-only households; that means not enough people paying into the system
Other reasons for the rate increase include:
- Decisions by earlier boards to postpone rate increases
- Deteriorating pipes from the 1960s
- Unusually high growth anticipated
All of the official explanations seemed to leave residents more angry.
“If we’re using less water, why the heck are we paying more?” asked Phil Trejo. “I just don’t think it’s right. It’s way too much.”
Residents said they resent being asked to pay for new growth; however, commissioners denied this.
Developers pay for their own water and sewer systems, Commissioner Bill Truex said, and then pay again to connect to the larger system.
Residents urged commissioners to sell Charlotte County Utilities to a private company.
Commissioner Joe Tiseo said with a private company, residents would be dealing with “a bunch of suits and shareholders.”
“They would go through the same exercise we’re going through right now... At least with us, you can vote us out of office every four years.”
Tiseo also deflated another suggestion from residents when he said it is not legal to use the state sales tax to pay for utility projects.
Of a private owner, Charlotte County Commissioner Christopher Constance said: “They’ll make a great case for doubling your rates.”
Two out of about 40 residents spoke in praise of the rate increase and a few others thanked commissioners for extending the sewer system.
“There is no way out other than raising your rates,” Maximilian Jaroszewski III advised his fellow residents. “We need to invest and we need to help people pay for it.”