The following article was published in the Miami Herald on July 1, 2007

It stinks! City sour in sewer situation

Miami Springs City Council members pondering whether to hand over the city's aged water and sewer systems heard a grim message from county officials: The cost will continue to rise even if the leaky pipes are replaced and even if Miami-Dade takes over operations.

Miami Springs buys water from the county and retails it to residents. The city sends its sewage to Miami-Dade to be processed.

But the water system is 65 to 70 years old and the sewer system is about 35 years old. The pipes are so corroded that leaks will worsen over time, costing the city increasingly more money and leading to higher rates for residents who are already paying the highest bills in Miami-Dade, county officials told the council Monday night.

Following presentations by the county's Water and Sewer Department, city officials concluded that the key element in any takeover would be whether Miami-Dade can continue to provide the additional services that residents now receive.

The council is planning to take the issue to residents and has tentatively scheduled a public hearing for Aug. 13 prior to its regular session.

During the meeting Monday, WASD officials presented an analysis of the cost and effects of the county taking over the water and sewer operations. Council members focused on the effects and potential benefits and whether such a switch is necessary.

According to the county's analysis, fixing leaks accounted for half of the city's work on the water system and 80 percent of residents' sewer complaints were back-up related. Also, infiltration and inflow -- storm and ground water entering the system -- were a "significant issue."

"I think we're behind the curve," Councilman Paul Dotson said at the meeting. "These things happen to us and we don't have the facility to find out until much longer after the fact."

WASD Assistant Director Jorge Rodriguez said the problems would continue with water and sewer alike as long as the aged systems are in place.

"If you keep your [water] system, I think you're going to be looking at a similar problem as in the sewers: high degree of infiltration and unnacounted-for water will increase significantly, due to the age of the pipes," Rodriguez said. "These pipes are corroded; they leak. Because of the age of the pipes, you need to plan to replace that old infrastructure. There's no question about it."

Rodriguez suggested the city view the issue from an economic standpoint. "You can look at how much water you're losing compared to how much you're buying," he said.

Miami Springs Finance Director William Alonso wrote in a memo to the council that the city would have to keep increasing rates all the way through the 2024 fiscal year to cover the cost of keeping the systems.

The county, for its part, estimated it would have to spend $36.2 million to take over the systems, with the city paying $19.7 million. Asked by Dotson if that means the city would go "deeper and deeper in the hole," Alonso said that wasn't necessarily the case.

"What's going to happen is that the residents are going to pay for it," Alonso said.

But a transfer to the county could mean savings for residents. According to the county assessment, they currently pay the highest water and sewer rates in Miami-Dade.

A resident using an average of 15,000 gallons per quarter in Miami Springs is billed $166.46, whereas a county customer pays $89.70 for the same amount. If the county took over the system, the average Miami Springs customer would save $307.03 annually.

However, of those savings, the city would have to take $112.50 to cover revenue losses from the takeover, translating into net savings of $194.53 per customer, according to Alonso's memo.

And even if customers end up saving money with a county takeover, rate increases would be inevitable.

"Everyone's rates will be going up over time," WASD Assistant Director of Finance Diane Camacho said, adding, "We're going to implement those rate increases so as to not produce any spikes for our customers and try to put them in very gradually."

The question thus came down to one of service.

"This is not going to be a financial issue," Alonso said. "The rates are not going to go down. It's just a question of whether or not the residents are willing to give up what they've got in services."

Miami Springs residents enjoy a very high level of service from the city, which includes fixing clogged toilets and sewer back-ups.

According to City Manager James Borgmann, the service issue is as yet an unknown factor in any county takeover.

"It's yet to be seen what they can deliver to us," Borgmann said. "I don't doubt they can deliver what they say they can but it has yet to be seen."