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Cities, counties say bill would stick them with costs for moving roadside utilities

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A Senate bill that shifts from utilities to local government the cost of moving power lines and other utilities in easements for roadway expansions passed a Senate committee on Monday despite opposition from local governments.

SB 896 by state Sen. Jeff Brandes, a Republican from St. Petersburg, was prompted by a dispute between the city of Cape Coral and the Lee County Electric Cooperative.

In 2013, the city sued the electric cooperative in an attempt to recoup millions of dollars spent on moving utilities during roadway expansions. An appeals court rejected the utility’s property-rights arguments, according to the News-Press.

Under the legislation, utilities will be liable for relocation costs only if their lines and facilities are inside the right-of-way rather than in easements alongside or over a road, according to a Senate bill analysis.

“There is a benefit to the public and private groups for having a defined area in which they (utilities) can provide services,” Brandes on Monday told the Senate Committee on Community Affairs.

But Cape Coral officials said the bill would impose a financial burden on the city and other local governments across the state. The Florida League of Cities and the Florida Association of Counties joined other local governments in opposing the bill.

“This legislation comes down to a huge shift in costs from the utility provider to local government,” said Megan Sirjane Samples, representing the Florida League of Cities.

But the bill has support from groups including the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Associated Industries of Florida, the Florida Telecommunications Association, AT&T, CenturyLink, Verizon and the Florida Natural Gas Association.

Tracy Hatch, general attorney with AT&T, said Cape Coral acquired roadside property with existing utility easements but wanted to force utilities to pay for relocating their utility lines.

“The point is they (local governments) want to make us pick up part of the freight of their projects,” Hatch said. “In a sense it becomes a hidden tax increase.”

State Sen. Geraldine Thompson, a Democrat from Orlando, voted against the bill.

“In terms of the monetary benefit, it goes to the utility,” Thompson said. “I think the utility that gets the monetary benefit should be the entity that pays.”

But Brandes said cities had always paid to move utilities in easements before the Cape Coral case. He said utilities won’t want to use those public easements in the future.

“That to me is a concern because I feel like that will increase costs for consumers,” he said.

The bill passed 6-1 and has two more committee stops. The House companion, HB 391, has passed two committee stops and has one remaining.

Bruce Ritchie (@bruceritchie) covers environment, energy and growth management in Tallahassee. 

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