New Tampa residents livid about sky-high water bills
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01/28/11 Kate Bradshaw
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Steve Daignault tries to explain why water bills are to high.


photo by Kate Bradshaw, WMNF

Some New Tampa residents saw their water bills soar in November and December. Dozens of them packed a town hall meeting this morning to find out why – and few left satisfied.

Deborah Bernard lives alone in Northeast Tampa. Her last water bill was forty-eight dollars. She was probably expecting her balance due this time around wouldn’t be much different. That’s why she was a little surprised when she got her bill.

That $863 is for an estimated 105,400 gallons of water – that’s enough to fill more than five swimming pools, or take a month-long shower. Bernard said she doesn’t water her lawn; she didn’t have a swimming pool installed. She works full-time and has an hour-long commute each way, so she’s rarely home. Something was up. So she called the city water utility, to no avail.

Bernard was one of dozens to pack a meeting room in the New Tampa Regional Library to get answers about their skyrocketing water bills. Officials from the Tampa Water Department offered up several possible causes for the higher bills. Department head Brad Baird said it’s possible a number of factors came together to form a perfect storm for some residents.

Other reasons he offered included rising wastewater rates, the adoption of two additional tiers to their billing system that charge heavier users substantially more, and freezes resulting in pipe breakage. Public Works administrator Steve Daignault said water usage tends to go up after the wet season.

The affected homes seem to be distributed randomly throughout the area. Several attendees suggested that air bubbles in the pipes could be causing water usage meters to spike, but Daignault said such an occurrence wouldn’t cause water bills to go up more than ten-fold.

An attendee who said he works in IT said an unseen glitch in the utility’s billing software may have caused some bills to spike. Tampa City Council member Joseph Caetano assembled the meeting. He said he wants to have the billing software replaced.

Many pointed to the utility’s tiered rate system as a key cause in the spikes. That billing method charges light water users within city limits $1.82 per hundred cubic feet of water used. The top tier charges consumers more than $16 per 100 cubic feet used. There are seven tiers in total. Caetano said he’s going to ask his colleagues on the council to abolish that system.

Water Department officials said the random distribution of the high bill recipients suggests a unique combination of factors is behind every jaw-droppingly high bill. But Tampa resident Deborah Bernard, who saw her bill go from $48 to over $800, wasn’t buying it.

Tampa water officials told the frustrated audience the utility would examine the dozens of exorbitant bills case by case basis. In the mean time, those whose bills are under investigation will be exempt from late fees while the city examines their cases.

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