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Some Elected Officials Take Lead in Resolving Backflow Controversy
By Melody Jameson melody@observernews.net
Aug 9, 2007, 21:27

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For several elected officials, controversial backflow prevention valves no longer are on the back burner. 

In recent days, two Florida legislators, at least one Hillsborough County commissioner and county attorneys have taken up resolution of multiple issues raised by residents resisting a county mandate to install the expensive, disputed equipment.

Last week, Rep. Seth McKeel, whose District 63 in the Florida House covers Sun City Center, and Sen. Ronda Storms, representing Florida Senate District 10 and parts of the South County, outlined a menu of options in letters to Hillsborough’s top governmental leaders.  


This week, Commissioner Al Higginbotham, whose fourth district encompasses a large part of East Hillsborough including Sun City Center, initiated problem-solving efforts involving both state and local levels.   


At the same time, county attorneys are collecting recommendations for revision of the Hillsborough ordinance which, when enforced, angered citizens and set in motion a backflow backlash.


In addition, county employees are combing through a collection of about 250 questions and stated concerns related to various aspects of the backflow controversy.   


Backflow Background

This matter of cross connection contamination, the subject of county ordinance 03-6 first drafted in 1997 and updated in 2003, became an issue about three months ago when county building services staff began enforcing the ordinance in South County neighborhoods.

Hillsborough’s ordinance requires that property owners with both county potable water lines and auxiliary water pumping capacity for irrigation purposes from a pond or shallow well prove that cross connection of the two systems does not exist.  The ordinance further mandates that, once the proof is provided, a backflow prevention valve costing hundreds of dollars be installed at property owner expense to ensure what has been proved impossible does not then occur.  The county code calls for fines or jail for failure to comply with its provisions.

South County residents, particularly in Sun City Center and Apollo Beach, strenuously objected both to the methods used by county personnel and to attempted forced installation of the equipment.


Some of their grievances were detailed in a July article in The Observer.  Among their complaints: inspectors seeking neighborhoods to target based on location adjacent to a lake, for example; purchase of valves from plumbers at prices in the $500-$700 range; county personnel sending plumbers to suspect properties without consulting owners, and required subsequent annual inspections by plumbers at rates set by the craftsmen.  


As complaints began to mount, a Sun City Center resident, Dave Brown, acquired a valve and ultimately offered to demonstrate what he considers its numerous flaws.   The valve not only is unnecessary because there have been no proven cases of cross contamination causing illness in the county, he said, but it’s easily stolen, then converted to cash at scrap metal yards.  In addition, he asserted, the valve can be used for the very purpose it is supposed to prevent: contamination of the public water supply.  Also, he added, the equipment could halt water flow to a dwelling under hard freeze conditions because it brings the potable water line above ground.     


Despite Brown’s numerous offers to demonstrate his contentions with a working valve, however, local officials repeatedly declined to examine the matter.  And, soon constituent correspondence began to flood state and county official inboxes.  


Elected Representatives Speak Up

McKeel and Storms noted that fact in their letters to Hillsborough’s commissioners and county administrator.  The two legislators, members of the Hillsborough  delegation, offered five possible options to meet citizen-requested “relief from the cost associated with the installation of the backflow preventions…”

They suggested that compliance with the ordinance might be delayed until “the next non-emergency plumbing permit was pulled for that property,” and/or that homeowners be allowed to amortize the cost of valve installation over a period of time or assume only a portion of the charge if the county is unable to take on full cost of each valve placement, and/or that the county assume responsibility for maintenance, inspections and testings after valve installations.

McKeel and Storms went on to recommend the county might consider capping the valve installation and permit cost at a maximum of  $300, with charges for bad valve components not to exceed $100 and annual inspection fees set at no more than $20.


And, finally, the two state lawmakers noted that since Hillsborough is in the process of “currently replacing older water meters with newer meters that combine the double-check valve with the meter as a test program”, age-restricted communities might be designated as the test sites.


Higginbotham’s office responded almost immediately. The district four commissioner told The Observer this week “we’re on it”, adding he wants to examine the matter from the state perspective as well as on the local level. Because the county ordinance, while locally drafted, necessarily is related to state regulations, he said he’s set a meeting with the county’s lobbyist in the legislature, Edie Stewart, for Monday (August 13) to discuss the state vantage point.  


He’s also, he added, requested county staff cooperation with a field test to evaluate under completely realistic conditions whether the functions of a backflow valve can be subverted in the manner and as easily as Brown contends.


When advised of the field test possibility, Brown pointed out an “ideal test site exists in Sun City Center,”  on a county-owned parcel hosting a backflow valve.  


Such a field demonstration, Brown said, would be done with harmless, colored water sufficient to show how readily some equipment can overcome the public water system pressure.   


As such details are being worked out, county attorneys continue to gather information pertinent to the ordinance at the center of the controversy.   Assistant County Attorney Sheri Murphy told The Observer early in the week she expects” recommendations and input” related to ordinance revision from members of the county’s Cross Connection, Backflow and Back Siphonage Control Board when it meets Tuesday, August 21.    The board consists largely of county staff, area plumbers and irrigation contractors.


The session, slated for 2:30 PM at NetPark on East Hillsborough Avenue, is open to the public.  Asked if public comment regarding the ordinance, its implementation and enforcement, would be part of the proceedings, Murphy replied “if the board wants to open it up to the audience.”


And, back in Higginbotham’s office, the commissioner’s senior aide, Jess Johnson, said this week he’s going through the 37 pages compiled by Brown and containing what Brown calls “a compendium of questions and concerns” provided by area citizens.  Johnson said he’s organizing the 250 questions and statements for replies from the most pertinent sections of county government with the dual purpose of obtaining responses and educating himself in the intricacies of the backflow controversy.       



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