Katara Simmons/News-Sun A pump station located near the maintenance shed supplies water to Country Club of Sebring residents. The utility has been using too much water for several years, according to a letter from SWFWMD Executive Director Blake Guillory.
published: Wednesday, August 14, 2013
Commissioner's water system under pressure
By BARRY FOSTER
SEBRING - Officials of the Southwest Florida Water Management District reportedly are looking for assistance from Highlands County commissioners in resolving what they termed "the serious, long-standing violations in a Water Use Permit issued to Country Club Utilities, Inc."
That system, which serves the County Club of Sebring, is owned and operated by R. Greg Harris. He serves as both District 5 Highlands County commissioner and vice-chairman of the commission.
In an Aug. 7 letter reportedly sent to each of the county commissioners, SWFWMD Executive Director Blake Guillory wrote that "without a substantial reduction in water use, it is possible that the customers of the utility ... may experience an increase in rates and/or an interruption of service."
Guillory explained that the Country Club Utilities service area is within the Southern Water Use Caution area. The SWUCA, as it is known, is an area within which water resources are critical. Guillory said Country Club Utilities' history of noncompliance began more than a decade ago.
It was originally permitted in December 2002 to pump 106,400 gallons per day on an annual average daily basis.
However, Guillory maintains, the utility consistently has exceeded its permitted quantities resulting in repeated efforts by SWFWMD staff to gain compliance. The permitted quantities of Country Club Utilities were increased to an annual average daily rate of 183,000 gallons per day in October 2006. However, despite numerous efforts by the water management district staff to assist them, Guillory said Country Club Utilities has continued to pump beyond what it is allowed by its permit.
Now, SWFWMD officials say they are pursuing enforcement action against the utility for its continued overpumpage violations. In September of last year, the SWFWMD's governing board authorized staff to initiate litigation against Harris' company.
Last month, SWFWMD staff reportedly issued one last proposed Consent Order to the utility for its consideration in what they said was "an effort to resolve this matter without further litigation." That included a requirement that the utility both prepare a written compliance plan and to pay penalties and costs totaling $83,949 to the district.
Those costs legally could be passed on to the utility's customers.
"If this matter cannot be resolved via negotiation of a Consent Order, district staff will move forward with additional compliance and enforcement action, which may include, but is not limited to, revocation of the utility's permit," Guillory wrote.
Revocation of the permit is a very serious consequence and could potentially lead to service interruptions for the utility's customers. It will only be considered as an option if compliance is not able to be achieved in any other way.
He said that the optimal solution would be a combination of water conservation measures coupled with a water-conserving rate structure. Guillory said a staff report laid the blame for the overpumpage problem on "excessive irrigation by individual property owners, as well as the utility's failure to implement effective water conservation measures".
Moreover, Country Club Utilities reportedly has an ongoing staff-assisted rate case pending before the Florida Public Service Commission. Guillory reported that there appears to be little progress in that action since it was filed in June 2012 "as the utility has failed to pay its regulatory assessment fee to the PSC."
According to a recent review of the docket, the pending case will either have its time schedule revised or be closed on Sept. 6.
In response to a prior SWFWMD enforcement action, Country Club Utilities reportedly had requested a rate change. That was dismissed due to the failure to pay its regulatory assessment fee.
Guillory emphasized that district officials are greatly concerned that without cooperation by Country Club Utilities officials, its customers' rates may substantially increase irrespective of the adoption of any water-conserving rate structure. Guillory is asking for the Highlands County commission's help inasmuch as the utility had not been "particularly responsive" to SWFWMD during the past decade of noncompliance.
In a letter to the water management district, Harris disagreed with the consent order and found the $81,849 fine and accompanying $2,000 fee to be too high a figure.
Harris maintained he has unsuccessfully attempted to implement and encourage water conservation among his utility customers. For example, Country Club Utilities had purchased rain sensors for the homeowners and had been prepared to have them installed. However, not one utility customer had responded to the offer.
In addition, Harris said the company has no enforcement capabilities to penalize homeowners for over-consumption and is strapped by lack of personnel, with assistance by only one part-time employee.
As an effort to display what they termed "a good faith effort of compliance," Country Club Utilities has hired geologist Vivian Bielski to look into the problem. Harris has asked for a 90- to 120-day timeframe for her to gather and analyze a wide array of information ranging from the review of annual reports to a site specific review of the geology of the area to develop options for compliance.
In the meantime, Harris reportedly is attempting to make arrangements with Florida Senator Denise Grimsley to arrange a meeting with SWFWMD officials to further discuss the matter.
Fortunate Son (by: no millionaires son - 8/17/2013)
Some folks are born silver spoon in hand, Lord don't they help themselves, oh but when the tax man comes to the door, Lord their house look like a rummage sale!
HARD WORKING? (by: MB - 8/16/2013)
Its obvious that Greg's family, er, friends, want to paint a rosy picture of this uninformed commissioner. Strong faith in Allah? Great. Greg only has a strong faith for what he thinks will be popular. He's a go along get along guy who thinks everything is wonderful while Rome crumbles around him. Keep joking Greg,you've got us all so fooled with your witty remarks and non-stop pandering. What a joke. SWFMD has been trying for 10 years to get this system in line, and he wouldn't even dignify this until it went public. Typical politician.
Get This! (by: I C - 8/15/2013)
Just 3 months ago, Greg Harris voted for Highlands County to pay into the Soil and Water Concervation District Director's new retirement fund and praised her in the process. Now the county is already in debt and she isn't even a county employee but "let's give it to her anyway"! Greg, if you can't manage your own company, you mismanage public funds by scratching backs, maybe you should go back to work at Home Depot where you did so well.
pay up buddy (by: cindy - 8/15/2013)
Mr. Harris is so smart, he is attempting to use the Senator in dealing with SWFDMD to get his "fines" reduced. I hope she refuses to let him drag her into his personal mess. Go cash some bonds Mr. Harris and pay your dues like everybody else.
All Wrong (by: (definitely not) Gregory Harris' momma - 8/15/2013)
You guys have your facts all wrong. First, Gregory isn't a "good ol' boy" as some have suggested. I don't care what his family says about him, he's a stand up man who has a strong faith in Allah.
News?!? (by: Lack of Cents - 8/15/2013)
I find this humorous at best that we are in one of the RAINIEST seasons in a half dozen years or more, and SWFWMD decides to make a stink about this. Seems I heard the same guy speak about the HIGH water level in Okeechobee a few weeks ago. And can anyone show me ANY evidence that "over pumping" of that well caused any damage? Seems to me this is a bit of a witch hunt with the "conservative" Barry Foster at the helm. Malarky.
Bad Water (by: Bill Payer - 8/15/2013)
How about the fact that the water turns silverware into rustware, and you have to have news coils put in your A/C once a year.
(by: excuses - 8/14/2013)
Isn't Sheriff Benton a CC Utilities customer? What's going on?
It's about time (by: MB - 8/14/2013)
Ignoring the Water Management District for 10 years? Over pumping and not responding? Class act all the way. Ask some of the YMCA board members, chamber board members and folks in the community how great this good ol boy politician is. In my opinion, he's as phony as they come. Oh, and he's a do-nothing county commissioner too? Gosh, what a surprise. Yes, let's put him in charge. Perfect.
Harris (by: Bill Payer - 8/14/2013)
Greg Harris and his water system suck !
Water (by: Les - 8/14/2013)
Apparently rules are good for us but not for you Mr. Harris
power access should be denied (by: its always about money - 8/14/2013)
Mr. Harris is imposing upon Senator Grimsley to arranging a meeting with SWFWMD? According to Harris's own words in this article; "not one utility customer has responded to the offer"... to implement or encouraged water conservation by installing rain sensors. Does anyone realize that would include Senator Grimsley, who is a Country Club Utilities customer? Mr. Harris should come clean first by paying the fine like everybody else who is found to be in violation of rules and laws.
No surprise (by: Guest - 8/14/2013)
The "entitled" don't believe the rules apply to them. Hope they get fined hard.
No direct quotes? (by: Plucky - 8/14/2013)
Sure would have been nice if SWFWMD or SWUCA and Greg Harris would have been called for quotes.
of course (by: Angry citizen - 8/14/2013)
And this is one of our County Commissioners? What a joke. No wonder this county is in the shape it is. We need to get rid of them all. Has Mr. Harris stepped away from the discussion of this
Fore! (by: Just a peasant - 8/14/2013)
Why was this allowed to continue for a decade? Gotta' keep the lawns of those fancy houses and the golf course green huh?!
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