Gulfport residents will soon receive some unwelcome news in the mail: utility rates are going up.
Gulfport City Council unanimously approved ordinances at its Tuesday, June 20, meeting that will allow the city to charge more for water, sewage, stormwater treatment and garbage collection.
At the council’s previous meeting on June 6, councilmembers heard a presentation from City of Gulfport Finance Director Cheryl Hannafin detailing the need for rate increases and how, by and large, the city has little choice in the matter thanks to the contract for services it has with the city of St. Petersburg.
At this week’s meeting, City Manager Jim O’Reilly said mailers will go out to residents in the coming weeks that will fully explain how and when the rate increases will go into effect. He said the ordinances will receive a second reading and public hearing at either the August 1 or August 15 city council meeting before they are implemented.
As Hannafin explained at the June 6 city council meeting, St. Petersburg is implementing significant increases in the wholesale rates it charges Gulfport for potable water and wastewater/sewer services.
“They create a rate increase and then they pass it along to us,” O’Reilly told the Gabber. “Our contract says that Gulfport will not sell retail [services] lower than wholesale. It’s in the agreement for water and sewer.”
Indeed, the text of that agreement reads, “It is specifically understood and agreed that Gulfport will not sell water to its residents or other users at a rate less than the prevailing rate that St. Petersburg charges its residents.” The agreement also states, “It is specifically understood and agreed that Gulfport will not provide collection and treatment services to its residents or other users at a rate less than the prevailing rate that St. Petersburg charges its residents.”
Compounding the problem is that St. Petersburg plans to charge Gulfport a 25-percent surcharge, on top of its wholesale water and sewer rate increases, when the contract comes up for renewal in October 2018. The surcharge was made possible by a state-level statute and means Gulfport’s costs for water and sewer will rise by some $1.2 million between 2016 and 2019.
To help offset the additional costs, residential utility rates will rise by 9.75 percent per month for water, and 20 percent for sewer.
“Despite our best efforts to seek every opportunity to maintain levels of efficiency, rising costs are unavoidable,” Hannafin wrote in a memo accompanying one of the ordinances. “The city has experienced significant increases in the rising cost of compounding employee salary and benefits costs, including especially large increases in health insurance and workers compensation insurance in recent years.”
Effort to Stop Wildlife Feeding Wins Final Approval
Tuesday night’s meeting also featured a second reading and public hearing of ordinance 2017-05, which amends the city code to make it illegal to feed wildlife on any city-owned property. Residents near Wood Ibis Park pushed for the ordinance, saying park visitors often feed bread to the ducks in and around the park despite the prevalence of scientific evidence proving that white bread meant for human consumption has little to no nutritional value for ducks and might even be harmful to their health.
Councilmembers approved the ordinance 4-0 (Ward 2 Councilmember Christine Brown is on vacation and was not able to attend the meeting).
Town Shores resident Beverley Comstock, an advocate for the ordinance, thanked councilmembers for taking swift action to protect the city’s wildlife and asked for new signage and literature to be placed at the park in order to better educate visitors. “We need a big sign up there saying feeding kills the birds and there’s a fine for doing it,” she said.
According to the Gulfport Police Department, a first offense will be considered a Class 5 code violation and would come with a $93 fine.
Summer Recreation Program Fee Could Rise
Councilmembers discussed implementing an increase in what it charges for enrollment in its eight-week summer recreation program for children. Ward 3 Councilmember Yolanda Roman said that at $270, Gulfport’s program is priced much lower than other cities in the area, and that the fee has not been increased since 2009. She suggested a 10-percent increase in the fee, effective for summer 2018; however, councilmembers agreed that the city would continue to offer the program at a discounted rate, or even free of charge in some cases, for children of lower-income households.