Chiefland, Otter Creek water deal negotiations ongoing

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Rates at heart of matter

By Mark Scohier, Staff writer

Despite hopes to the contrary and nearly two hours of debate, Town of Otter Creek officials and representatives left Chiefland City Hall Monday still not knowing where they stand on a months-long plea for clean, fresh water.

At the meeting, Otter Creek representatives asked that Chiefland Commissioners decide on a water rate – the most contested issue associated with the proposal to pump water down a 12-mile pipe from Chiefland to Otter Creek – so that plans might move forward, but commissioners took no vote on the matter at the end and asked that attorneys representing the two municipalities first meet on contract specifics.

Joe Mittauer, head of engineering firm Mittauer and Associates, started the night’s discussion off with a description of the problem Otter Creek faces.

“I think everybody knows the Town of Otter Creek has a very serious water quality problem,” he said.

The town was ordered in 2011 by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to fix the problem, he said to the crowd of municipal officials, area citizens and representatives from at least two state agencies. The water is tainted with cancer-causing chemicals that are the result of a byproduct of chlorine treatment, he said.

According to Mittauer, building and running a water treatment plant to solve a water quality problem for a small town such as Otter Creek wouldn’t be feasible because of the costs compared to the town’s small population and because of contaminants and bacteria that would continuously degrade the system. There are too many issues in Otter Creek, he said. “It’s just more than a small community can deal with.” 

The only other option, he said, is to pipe water in, yet there are no close sources of water, other than places like Bronson or Chiefland.  

Bronson turned the deal down last year, which, according to Mittauer, leaves Chiefland as the only viable choice.

After numerous meetings and eight drafts of potential deals between Chiefland and Otter Creek since February, folks on the Otter Creek end of things are ready to move forward, he said.

Benefits to the city include about 6 miles of free pipeline – valued at $1.5 million – upgrades and additions to infrastructure, increased economic development and additional revenue from customers in Otter Creek, he said.

Still, Chiefland commissioners remained hesitant and, at times, some even appeared conflicted on which side of the issue they were on.

“Residents, for the most part, are absolutely adamant that we don’t sell water,” said Chiefland Mayor Teal Pomeroy, adding that residents would rather the state come in and take it anyway.

“Teal, put yourself in our position, “said Otter Creek Council Member Marie Murray. “In the Ten Commandments, it says help your neighbor.”

Pomeroy, in the past and during Monday night’s meeting, also stated he is in favor of selling water and that it’s he, himself, who is concerned the state might one day come and take whatever water it wants.

Despite this, sentiments expressed by commissioners and residents in past meetings overwhelmingly point to the price that should be charged for water, not whether or not it should be for sale. Many have objected to the idea that fees charged to Otter Creek would be less than what some Chiefland residents pay, a proposal Otter Creek has sought all along in order to afford paying back a loan the town will have to take out.

Chiefland City Manager Kevin Gay, armed with maps and bottles of water samples he claimed to have taken from water sources near Otter Creek, said the town needs to consider “other possibles.”

There are various other methods for getting clean water, he said. For instance, Gay offered, the town could purchase a tanker truck and haul water in every day.

“What source are we going to buy water from? “asked Otter Creek Mayor Cleah Martin.

“From Chiefland,” Gay responded.

Martin asked if just using a meter, such as the one that has already been proposed, in a line from Chiefland to Otter Creek wouldn’t make more sense.

“I’m just trying to help, Mam. I have other things to do,” Gay said, adding that the town has other options, as well, such as trucking water in from various rock mines and springs in the area. Gay said he had tasted all three of the water samples he’d personally taken and described each of them as tasting good. 

A truck, depending on the size, might have to make several trips a day to deliver the estimated 12,000 to 13,000 gallons of water used by Otter Creek each day, he said, or the town might consider investing in a military grade bladder big enough to hold a day’s worth of water that could be brought in on a log truck.

“There are options that are available to you for a good source of drinking water.”

Chiefland Vice Mayor Teresa Barron, who in the past has championed Otter Creek’s proposal, said a positive to the trucking option would be that clean water could be brought in sooner than if a pipeline was constructed.

Suwannee River Water Management District hydrologist Dale Jenkins said, “I’d love to see where these springs are. I appreciate that very much, Mr. City Manager.” Jenkins told the commission that water from a nearby rock pit or spring would still have to be treated, which would incur further expense.

Otter Creek resident Robert Martin said, “City Manager, you’re doing a wonderful job,” adding, mockingly, that a military grade bladder on a truck was a “great idea.” The commission “should be ashamed,” he said.

“You guys are going to benefit 100 percent,” he said, adding that he’s noticed land going up for sale along U.S. 19 since discussion on the pipeline started.

Otter Creek Council Member John Morris, bringing the discussion back to rates, asked why Otter Creek residents should pay the 125 percent rate being charged to Chiefland residents outside of town limits. The issue, as mentioned earlier, has been the most contested aspect of the potential water deal.

Morris said Otter Creek shouldn’t pay that much because the City of Chiefland wouldn’t be responsible for maintaining Otter Creek water infrastructure or having to read separate meters, all of which add to the cost of a city’s water expenses. There would be only one meter, he said, located at a halfway point between the two municipalities.

Chiefland business owner and Town of Fanning Springs Council Member Stoney Smith said Chiefland would be wise to take advantage of the opportunity to sell water.

“You could get $12,000 a year on just a few hundred dollars’ worth of work,” he said, “and I know the city needs money ….”

Chiefland’s water rates are already the lowest in the county, he said, and the city needs money to cover possible water leaks and breakdowns.

He also said he travels in many of the same circles as Pomeroy and has not heard the same comments about residents not wanting to sell water.

Pomeroy again said he was in favor of selling water, but, he added, “I’m representing the board. I’m also representing the citizens. This is the first time anybody spoke out about it.”

Commissioner Chris Jones said, as a citizen, he was also concerned about Otter Creek paying less, and it’s something he’s heard throughout the community.

“Believe it or not, a lot of people struggle to pay their water bill,” he said. They don’t want to see Otter Creek paying less.

Legal matters were also an issue Monday night. Commissioners repeatedly came back to contract specifics related to control of the pipeline, duration of the loan agreement, potential future rate changes and what would happen if Otter Creek defaulted on its loan.

Otter Creek’s attorney Brent Baris said clauses would be put into the contract ensuring Chiefland would not be held responsible for any default on the part of Otter Creek.

“I don’t see how you’d be liable on the note,” Baris said. “You’re not signing on the note.”

Baris, later, also said he was confident that all legal concerns could be addressed in the contract. In fact, he said, many of them already have been addressed in previous drafts and that the only real issue left was to decide on a rate.

“Can you come up with a motion and we’ll put it in the agreement?” Baris asked. “Do you have a rate?”

“Yeah,” Pomeroy said jokingly,” between 100 and 125 percent.”

The commission is expected to meet on the matter again after it has been discussed between attorneys.