Orange County is moving forward to explore the prospect of buying out an eastern private utility that provides water and sewer services to the remote community of Wedgefield, where residents have complained for decades about water quality and cost.
The matter became a major campaign issue in the 2016 county elections, contributing to Emily Bonilla‘s upset victory over longtime Commissioner Ted Edwards in District 5, which stretches from Winter Park to Wedgefield.
Now, with Bonilla’s urging and the blessings of Mayor Teresa Jacobs and at least most of the other five commissioners, as well as letters of interest sent by Wedgefield residents, the county will explore buying the systems from Pluris Water and the prospect that the county’s public Orange County Utilities might be able to upgrade it to provide better water at lower prices.
“I think this is very likely going to be very expensive proposition, but I also don’t think that we can underestimate the value of plain drinking water and reasonable rates and … people not feeling comfortable using water for showers and basic life support,” Jacobs said after the Orange County Board of Commissioners held a second work session on the matter Tuesday morning.
“I’m fully in support of moving forward with the recommendations here. I don’t know the outcome, but I think we can’t know the outcome until we bring in somebody on who works with our utilities team… and conversations with Pluris,” she added.
And with that, and what appeared to be a clear consensus of the other commissioners, but without an actual vote, Jacobs instructed county officials to begin talks on a possible acquisition.
At this point the plan is to have county officials, with contracted financial, legal, and possibly engineering consultants, review the options of buying out and taking over the utility, which serves about 1,800 properties in Wedgefield. The community, which dates to the early 1960s, is located near the Orange-Brevard counties line, several miles to the east of the urbanized sprawl of greater Orlando, six miles beyond where the county now offers utility services.
Other options, of simply extending Orange County Utilities water to the area, or possibly offering the residents the chance to drill private wells [currently forbidden in their deed restrictions] also would be reviewed, though they might wind up being prohibitively expensive, require law changes through the Florida Legislature.
Ultimately, any plan to buy out the utility would also have to have approval by the Wedgefield residents, and they would bear the costs, though the county could finance the purchase and improvements with 20-year bonds.
One issue is the disputed question about how bad the water might be. On Tuesday, and at a Nov. 14 work session, the board of commissioners heard numerous residents complain about its taste, smell, affect on washed clothes and other items, and concerns about its chemical purity. Pluris has maintained the water is good, meeting all water quality standards, and that has been backed up by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, though some tests have shown elevated levels of trihalomethanes, a chemical byproduct of the chlorination process.
Bonilla took a strong position of seeking help for the residents’ water complaints in last year’s election, while Edwards downplayed the concerns as those of a few people.
“I’m glad that everyone is looking at moving forward with this,” Bonilla said. “However, mayor, like you said, the people, they’re going to decide this. They’re the ones who will be paying for this in the end. So I think it’s best to move forward and let them decide.”
The other issue, the price, might be the sticking point of any deal, as the commissioners heard Utilities Department Deputy Director Todd Swingle and others express skepticism that county improvements could significantly reduce costs that residents contend are far out of control.
One way or the other, Swingle said, “This would be a multi-year process.”