County utility director reflects on 10-year anniversary of Ponte Vedra service area acquisition

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10 years after St. Johns County Utility acquired St. Johns Service Company and Intracoastal Utilities to take over a large majority of the Ponte Vedra service area, Utility Director Bill Young said he’s extremely proud of the county’s efforts.

“I think it’s quite a success story,” said Young, who has worked for the county’s Utility department for 32 years. “I think if you look back over the last 10 years, I can’t find anybody who would say we haven’t done a really good job."

The utility director explained, however, that at the onset of the acquisitions, the public wasn’t exactly on the county’s side. Cynicism and uncertainty regarding the county’s takeover and its ability to deliver quality service characterized public perception. The county had acquired each of the private utilities for about $22-24 million, Young said, and several residents thought that price was too high. In addition, the county instituted a conservation rate structure, and high end users got hit hard, he noted. 

Overall, however, Young said the results were not overly negative to residents, and service in the area has improved over time. The conservation rate structure, he also noted, largely contributed to the county winning the Northeast Florida Planning Council Environmental Stewardship Award in 2008, as a result of the Ponte Vedra service area saving 7 million gallons of water a month and 84 million gallons a year.

“That’s what I’m proud of,” said Young, whose department covers about 80 percent of the Ponte Vedra service area, with JEA covering the remainder in the northeast section of town near the Ponte Vedra Inn & Club. “That’s what we’ve done the last 10 years.”

According to Young, the county Utility has spent about $17 million on capital projects in Ponte Vedra, averaging a little over $2 million a year. Major projects, he explained, include the addition of an odor control unit at the Sawgrass wastewater treatment facility that cost about $1.6 million. In addition, he said the county has replaced all meters in the Ponte Vedra service area within the last few years, replacing old meters that had to be manually read with new radio technology that allows for remote monitoring and diagnostics. This project cost $4 million.

Young added that his department has invested in a more modern billing system that allows for more payment options via phone and Internet. He also said the Utility has worked to automate monitoring and operations in the field.

Moving forward, Young said the construction of a new water reclamation facility will begin in early 2018 at the county’s existing PLAYERS Club site, which is adjacent to the Woodlands Creek neighborhood and the large TPC parking lot.

I think it will be something the community can be very proud of,” he said. “We see ourselves as environmentalists so we’re excited when we can treat wastewater to a higher level before we release it to our neighbors and neighborhoods.”

The new facility will consolidate three of Ponte Vedra’s aged wastewater treatment plants into one state-of-the-art facility made of concrete that will last for 30 to 50 years. He said that the new facility will cover residents living in the southern end of the Ponte Vedra service area. Marsh Landing, he added, will continue to utilize its own wastewater treatment facility.

The three facilities to be phased out include the current treatment plant at the PLAYERS Club site, the Sawgrass waste water treatment plant and the Innlet Beach wastewater treatment plant.

The project, which is expected to be complete in mid-2020, will cost about $30 million. Young said the county is hoping to receive funding for the project via the State Revolving Fund program. He added that the county will also utilize a $2 million grant from the St. Johns River Water Management District’s Cost Share-Funding program to support the project.

Young explained that a multi-year 8 percent wastewater rate increase approved by the Board of County Commission last year will also help fund the new facility. The Utility director noted that an average family in Ponte Vedra that uses 5,000 gallons a month now pays about $57 a month, which he said is less than the $64 rate average in the southern part of the county and in many other parts of Northeast Florida.

In addition, the director said the Utility will be closing its kiosk in the County Courthouse Annex on Palm Valley Road because so few people utilize it. He said less than 10 people visit the office per day, with most residents now using automated options to pay their bills. Young said the kiosk will close by Oct. 1.

In general, Young said the Utility will continue to invest in the Ponte Vedra system, with $15 million allocated for it over the next five years.

“We’re going to continue to upgrade the facilities in Ponte Vedra,” he said. “We’re there for the long run.”

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