A unanimous vote by the Okaloosa County Board on Tuesday means county water users will see an unexpected increase in their monthly water bill starting in October.
The average water user, who spends about $70.19 per month with the county, will see a four-dollar increase on their bill instead of a two-dollar increase. County residents who use another water system, like the City of Niceville’s or Destin Water Users, won’t see a price hike from this decision.
The commission passed a new schedule for the water and sewer rates that will last until September 30, 2028. The new rates increase costs every year by more than five percent. The previous schedule had three percent increases on an annual basis.
Expansion charges will also increase, according to the Water and Sewer Department. These charges are one-time assessments that force new homebuilders to help pay for adding water and sewer lines to the homes they build to ensure those costs don’t get passed on to regular ratepayers
Former Okaloosa County Commissioner Dave Parisot made his way to the wooden podium in front of the commission in Crestview to speak against the rate increase. The former Shalimar-area commissioner told the current elected board that the increase was unjustified because the current ratepayers shouldn’t have to foot the additional costs added to their bill.
“When I read through this agenda request item and the justification for this rate increase, it struck me very boldly that the majority of these costs were due to expansion. That cost should not be burdened by your current rate payers. I have no problem with increasing your expansion fees, because that is what is causing your monetary shortfall – that’s where your costs are going up.”
The brief was given to the elected officials and posted online before the meeting, noting that the increases were due to the rapid increases in price for everything from contract labor to materials. In particular, the report blamed “massive amounts of government funding for water and sewer (which made contractors in demand, created tremendous supply pressure, and increased pricing), COVID-19 effects, supply chain delays, labor shortages, and raising of the minimum wage,” have forced the department to present this rate increase to the commission.
The Water and Sewer Department proposed – and the County Commissioners accepted a rate schedule that will increase water rates by more than five percent every year until the final increase in October of 2027. The previous rate plan contemplated a rise of three percent.
“We don’t love to change our rates,” Interim Water and Sewer Director Mark Wise said to the board.
Wise added that the increase would help fund the creation of five new water wells in the county and additional infrastructure expansion on the Shoal River Ranch area. The money would also be used to help reduce water use from residential leaks.
“I think the staff has taken a very careful and reflective approach on this adjustment. As we all know, it has not been easy times economically,” Commissioner Nathan Boyles, the representative for the western half of Niceville and Valparaiso on the commission, said. “Our citizens feel that we all feel that. We have to recognize our departments feel that as well. We recognize the cost of everything has gone crazy. It has gone up more than five percent every year in the last five years.”
“The easy thing to do would be to say, ‘no, we’re not going to raise rates,” Boyles added, “We’d be in the newspaper about not raising rates. And then, in 10 years, in 15 years, in 20 years, when things are breaking that we didn’t fix now, it would be someone else’s problem. I think this board has shown its willingness to not take the easy route.”
While they voted with the crowd, both commissioners Mel Ponder and Trey Goodwin expressed some heartburn about the decision to raise rates on Okaloosa County Water Users.
“I preferred that [the additional increase] would have been less,” Commissioner Ponder, the representative on the commission for the Eastern half of Niceville and Bluewater Bay, said, “But after we [Wise and Ponder] talked, I felt like there was a committment made that, good lord willing I would get another term, I would not see anything brought to us before my time [on the commission ends.] I don’t want you to be coming back every two years for an increase because that’s not fair to the citizens at all.”
“I think Mr. Parisot raised some valid points. Certainly, I want to be cautious about how we spread out paying for different things in the system,” Goodwin said, “I do want to point out that I view a lot of this as having something to do with having to rehabilitate our existing system, and that’s very important to me.”