Florida County to Buy Private Utilities

By ALISA ULFERTS

St. Petersburg Times, published January 11, 2001


DADE CITY -- For Commissioner Ann Hildebrand, Pasco County's utility acquisition program represents relief from years of water company headaches.

"I would like to see this on the front burner," said Hildebrand, a customer of Lindrick Services Corp. and the county's chief cheerleader for the acquisition.

County commissioners agreed, and voted Tuesday to jump-start their multimillion dollar utility acquisition program despite netting responses from fewer than half those companies queried last year.

The biggest ticket on the utility lineup: Lindrick, whose price tag nears $17-million.

Hildebrand and other customers of that utility have long complained about their service and their bills. Hildebrand led Tuesday's unanimous vote to find experts to analyze the health of the companies interested in selling.

That analysis is expected to cost between $250,000 and $300,000, which the county would recoup through the bonds it issues for the purchase.

"I'm glad that this is finally here," Hildebrand said.

County commissioners decided six months ago to launch a utilities acquisition program and sent letters to private companies asking if they'd be willing to sell. County officials estimated at the time that the purchase price for all utilities in the county could top $100-million, which the county would raise through revenue bonds.

The county has heard from 16 of the 34 utilities it contacted in July. Of those, 14 are interested in selling to the county; a little more than half are smaller companies that deliver just water, not sewer, services.

September was the deadline for companies to respond, but commissioners extended that deadline at the request of Assistant County Administrator Doug Bramlett.

The total cost for the seven companies that have named a price is roughly $23-million. Following Lindrick, East Pasco Utilities Inc. is next in line with a $5.2-million asking price.

Commissioners' Tuesday vote now gives Bramlett the green light to advertise for engineering and financial experts to analyze the interested utilities' books and hardware. Bramlett will report back to the commission to finalize the consultants' contracts.

One utility president, whom the county listed as a non-responder, urged commissioners not to overlook some of the utilities that didn't immediately react to the county's overtures.

"I think the letter of inquiry sent out a few months ago was a bit vague," Mad Hatter Utilities president Larry DeLucenay said. He added after the meeting that he had sent the county a letter saying he'd be interested in acquisition discussions.

In 1996 the county lost a lawsuit filed by Mad Hatter, a Land O'Lakes utility, for hooking up its customers to the county's wastewater system without Mad Hatter's permission. The county and the company recently reached a settlement on attorney's and other fees.

Another company on the county's unresponsive list was Aloha Utilities. Last year, more than 400 people came to a public forum about the quality of service Aloha Utilities was providing near New Port Richey. Residents complained of black water and proposed rate increases that have stalled before the PSC.

That agency's staffers are recommending a 50-percent increase in Aloha's wastewater rates but don't think customers should have to pay for the recent relocation of the company's headquarters.

The matter comes before the PSC next week. Aloha president Steve Watford has told the Times the company is not for sale.