The St. Johns County Utility Department would replace three of Ponte Vedra Beach’s aging wastewater treatment with a new, consolidated $25 million water reclamation facility as part of a $40 million upgrade proposed by the agency.
In a presentation made to residents at Monday’s board meeting of the Ponte Vedra Beach Municipal Service District, utility department representatives outlined the reasons they say the upgrades are needed and how the department proposes to pay for them. While much of Ponte Vedra is served by JEA, representatives acknowledged, the SJC Utility Department serves the residents of Marsh Landing, Sawgrass Players Club, Sawgrass Country Club and The Plantation at Ponte Vedra Beach as well as parts of A1A south of Mickler Road.
The four treatment plants currently serving those communities, they said, were built in the 1980s and are in need of significant repairs – so much so, that in the past decade the department spent $12 million on water treatment repairs and an additional $9 million on wastewater upgrades.
“We found ourselves in reactive mode,” said Utility Director Bill Young, outlining a number of recent system failures that required expensive repairs. One such repair, he noted, occurred when sewer gases ate away at the surrounding concrete, causing a road in Marsh Landing to collapse.
To address such concerns, the Utility Department proposes replacing three of the existing four treatment plants with a consolidated $25 million facility. A five-year, $15 million renewal and replacement project, meanwhile, would provide critical repairs to lift stations, manholes, water mains, valve repairs and other needed improvements.
“This will not address all of the issues,” Assistant Director of Engineering/Operations Gordon Smith said, “but it’s a good start.”
To fund the project, the department proposes a four-pronged plan: In addition to restructuring existing debt to take advantage of current low rates, the department would combine the Ponte Vedra Utility System with the main county utility system. Jesse Dunn, assistant director of the St. Johns County Office of Management and Budget, praised the operation of the main county system, saying it would be to Ponte Vedra’s benefit to merge with it.
“It’s almost like you’re marrying into a family with money,” Dunn said, adding that merging with the county system would free up $4 million the Ponte Vedra system has been required to hold in reserve – money that could be allocated toward the upgrades.
Rounding out the funding proposal would be approximately $22 million in low-cost state loans and – perhaps the most potentially controversial part of the plan – a four-year rate hike that would see residents’ rates rise an average of 6.34 percent, or an average of $3.77 a month.
Currently, Dunn said, residents served by the Ponte Vedra system enjoy the second lowest rates out of approximately 15 local areas spanning from Atlantic Beach to Flagler Beach. With the proposed rate increase, Ponte Vedra’s rates would be about average, ranking seventh out of the 15 communities.
But Young noted those projected rankings only take into account an increase for Ponte Vedra system residents – and it’s unlikely that the other communities’ rates won’t increase as well.
“I can tell you, the rates are not going to go down,” Young said. “We’ve committed the last 10 years to keep rates as low as we can; there are just severe needs…We want to bring Ponte Vedra up to the quality of utilities we run down south.”The Utility Department plans to present its proposal to the Board of County Commissioners at its Aug. 13 meeting, Young said. If approved, the project would get the greenlight to begin with the Oct. 1 start of the next fiscal year. Once funds are approved and received, it would take approximately three years for the new treatment facility to be designed, built and become fully operational. Other more immediate projects – such as repairing manholes – could begin in as little as 90 days.