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Jack Latvala open to state aid for homeowners needing sewer fixes

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State lawmakers had harsh words for St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman during a meeting Wednesday to discuss sewage overflows.

“I caution you on anymore overflows,” state Rep. Kathleen Peters, a Republican who represents House District 69 in the Florida Legislature. “Please be Superman and make sure there is not another overflow.”

Kriseman had just given members of the Pinellas County Legislative Delegation an update on the progress St. Petersburg has made to solving sewage woes. During two tropical storms this past summer, the city dumped thousands of gallons of raw and partially treated sewage into Tampa Bay because the system did not have enough capacity to handle the massive amount of rain.

Kriseman outlined a five-year, $304 million plan to increase capacity and totally revamp the city’s system. Kriseman told the delegation that he has set a target date of August 2017 to have the first improvements in place.

But delegation members were skeptical that Kriseman could make that deadline. Republican state Sen. Jack Latvala asked if the city is offering a bonus to contractors who could bring the projects in on time.

“I’d probably bet against” the city’s being able to complete the short-term improvements by next August, said Latvala.

Claude Tankersley, St. Petersburg’s public works administrator, said the city is planning to offer early completion bonuses.

Both he and Peters wanted to know how Kriseman planned to handle storm and rain events if the city doesn’t make the August completion date. Both asked about the possibility of renting “bladders,” or tanks, or a barge to hold overflow until the system could handle it.

Kriseman and Tankersley said they had considered those, and other solutions, but believed they were not the best use of money. Tankersley added that type of storage is limited because, once the bladders or tanks are filled, they stay filled until they can be emptied after the system recovers. It’s more efficient, Tankersley said, to go ahead with improvements that will enable the system to continue treating wastewater during the entire storm.

Latvala was not convinced.

“I don’t want to explain to the people of Tampa Bay,” he said, why there’s another overflow. “I don’t think that you have adequately explored other options.”

Kriseman said there is no way to guarantee that there would never be an overflow, but “the last thing we want is to have another discharge.”

All agreed that, although St. Petersburg has become the poster child for sewage infrastructure issues, the problem is widespread throughout Pinellas County, Florida and the U.S. One part of the problem is the poor condition of many of the pipes on private property that are carrying wastewater from homes and businesses into municipal systems. The cost for fixing those will fall on homeowners.

Kriseman said the Legislature should put some sort of grant or other program in place to help homeowners afford to have their systems inspected and replaced if necessary. The estimated price for doing so runs between $2,000 to $6,000.

“That’s something we want to put on the table,” Latvala said.

Latvala seemed open to the idea. One possibility, he said, is to tie relief for property owners’ costs to a proposal by Gov. Rick Scott for a matching grant program to encourage the owners of septic tanks to move to a sewer system.

The Pinellas delegation took no action at Wednesday’s meeting. The delegation is scheduled to meet again Dec. 2. Members could take action then.

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