WINTER HAVEN — The Winter Haven City Commission and city staff discussed whether to participate in a $240 million federal loan to build water infrastructure April 21.
The money will likely be used to build two desalination plants in Polk County —one near Lake Wales and the other in Lakeland — as well as miles of water pipe.
City Attorney John Murphy said the city's share of the federal loan payments would be approximately $500,000 per year over 40 years, possibly beginning 10 years from now.
Mayor Brad Dantzler noted the cost of the new water infrastructure would be spread out among many people. These are early estimates and the numbers may change as more information is learned.
Winter Haven staff have explored alternative water source options, such as the city’s Sapphire Necklace plan, but those plans would likely take more time to implement than the desalination plan. State experts have suggested the environment cannot wait any longer and that new water sources need to be put online as soon as possible.
The federal loan is being formalized April 28 at Nora Mayo Hall in downtown Winter Haven. The loan agreement, likely to be signed by most municipalities in Polk County, does have a clause which would give elected officials the opportunity to opt out of the loan before construction begins.
The federal loan would pay less than half the cost of construction of the two plants, with the State of Florida paying most of the other half of construction costs. The cost of maintaining the desalination plants would be in addition to the aforementioned construction costs.
The cities of Davenport and Fort Meade have opted out of the loan, citing their own alternative water supply plans. The City of Frostproof does not appear to have an alternative water supply plan and has not been actively involved in the discussion.
Winter Haven’s Sapphire Necklace plan – which involves using rain to recharge the Upper Floridan Aquifer – is not off the table altogether. That plan is still moving forward, but at a slower pace than the desalination plan and would be at additional cost if implemented.
City Manager Mike Herr said he and his staff had many concerns about the cost of desalinated water between 2016 and 2020, but said that mediation in 2020 resolved many of his concerns. Herr described a meeting about the matter several weeks ago that was closed to the public.
“It was the best presentation that I have ever witnessed in the public sector,” Herr said. “It rivaled any private sector presentation in a boardroom. It had all of the figures together and it was presented in such a factual way that we could all understand what our obligations were going to be. We are all at this table because eventually we will be running out of water supply.”
Later Herr added, “We've had our squabbles and we have worked them out. We are presenting what is the best-case scenario at this point.”
Mayor Pro Tem Nathaniel Birdsong reiterated that, while this was going to prove costly, it was a necessary investment.
“I warned you all earlier that this day was coming,” Birdsong said.