City, county tread water issue carefully

When it comes to water and sewer, the city of Port St. Joe and
Gulf County have reached what could be called, détente.

At the city’s June 15 meeting, and again at a special
meeting last week, commissioners approved an ordinance to define its utility service
area, a move that addresses a number of interlocal agreements, dating back to
2005, in which the city struck deals with the county to provide utility services.

The move by the city comes against a backdrop in which the
county late last year purchased Lighthouse Utilities Inc., whose water service
area extends from the Jones Homestead area to the Franklin County line,
including Indian Pass and Cape San Blas.

In the ongoing process of administering the Gulf County
Water Department, the county has moved to put in writing its intention to
expand service to other unincorporated areas of the county, as the need should

Hence, the city’s concern that it too make its intentions

“The city anticipates and is projected to experience a large
population increase within its Utility Service Area within the next 20 years
and has the utility infrastructure in place with adequate capacity to provide
water and/or sewer services throughout (this area,” reads the city ordinance. “As
the population increases, the demand for the highest quality central water
and/or sewer services will also increase.”

The city ordinance’s definition of its Utility Service Area
is in keeping with existing interlocal agreements, such as the one in 2005, when
the city annexed Windmark Beach.

“The St. Joe Company prepaid for water and sewer taps, when
we annexed phase 2,” said Mayor Rex Buzzett. “That allowed us to build a new
water plant, which was to be regional. The Northwest Florida Water Management
District wants us off the aquifer.”

The city later amended the interlocal agreements, both in
2008 and again in 2013, as it acquired ownership of water systems owned by the county
and located in the unincorporated area outside of city limits, which included the
White City, Highland View, and Beaches water systems.

The city made various improvements and assumed debts. In
2008, the city issued revenue bonds, and used the proceeds to acquire the county
system, and make various capital improvements to such system as required by the
interlocal agreement.

“We ended up paying for the water plant, and at some point
we had to extend sewer to St. Joe Beach,” said Buzzett. “We ended up spending a lot of money. We had a high debt service.”

The city’s current service area includes White City, St. Joe
Beach, Beacon Hill, and Cape San Blas for sewer.

The county’s purchase of Lighthouse Utilities has meant it
supplies water to the peninsula area and Jones Homestead, with the potential of
possible overlap of areas now receiving utilities from the city.

“They (the county) are going to have a second reading of an ordinance that
they will be water supplier for all unincorporated parts of Gulf County,”
Buzzett said. “We wanted to define exactly what our service area so they can’t
take our customers.”

As it stands now, the county has been comfortable with the
existing agreements and is signaling that they have no desire to create

“We’re not trying to step on their toes,” said County Administrator
Mike Hammond. “I haven’t seen (their map) but I have said all along, if the county
and city ever get sideways, we’ll have to buy the system or go to court.
I don’t want them to interfere with our ability to operate.”

Meet the Editor

Wendy Weitzel, The Star’s digital editor, joined the news outlet in August 2021, as a reporter covering primarily Gulf County.

Prior to then, she interned for Oklahoma-based news wire service Gaylord News and for Oklahoma City-based online newspaper during her four years at the University of Oklahoma, from which she graduated in May with degrees in online journalism and political science.

While at OU, Weitzel was selected as Carnegie-Knight News21 Investigative Fellow among 30 top journalism students from around the country. She also was senior editor managing a 12-person newsroom in coordination with Oklahoma Watch, a non-profit news organization in eastern Oklahoma.

Wendy Weitzel The Star Digital Editor

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