Tampa residents decry sky-high water bills
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01/21/11 Kate Bradshaw
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If you live in New Tampa, Lake Magdelene or Dana Shores, you may have seen your water bill skyrocket in recent weeks. Some residents from those areas are livid that they’re being asked to bay several times what they normally pay, and they took their troubles to city hall.

Katherine Inglis lives in Tampa Palms. She said her water bill has skyrocketed inexplicably.

"There are only two people living in my home. Our average water bill every month is anywhere from $150 to $220. In November I got a bill for $505.60."

She said she called the city water department to find out possible causes of that high bill, but the utility found no internal or external leaks. She said the finding didn’t stop the next month’s bill from climbing even higher.

"So then my next bill in December was an estimate for $169.27 and I thought 'oh good, I got everything corrected, everything's back on track and I'm doing fine'. Then I get my bill for January and it's $1043.85. My usage is the same, nothing has changed."

Inglis was one of dozens who’ve seen a drastic jump in their water bill. Middleton High School, which racks up an average $16,000 per month in water bills, saw that number jump to $65,000 for December. Today, the city said the increase was due to a leak. Most of those on City Council, like Mary Mulhern, appeared sympathetic.

"If I got a cell phone bill that told me I was on my cell phone for all these minutes and I know I wasn't, I would be able to work with my cell phone company and figure out what was wrong so the city needs to work with our customers and figure out what the problem is and maybe City Council will have to, if we can't get them to do that responsibly then maybe we'll just have to reduce the rates enough that your bill that's ten times as much as it was goes down to what it should reasonably be."

Council member Charlie Miranda said lowering water rates may seem like an easy answer, but it might have unintended consequences.

"What happens to the breakage of the pipes underground? How do you repair them? What happens to the 40 miles a year that we're doing to bring the system up that's 80 to 100 years old? What happens then? What happens to your agreement with SWFWMD to have certain tiers? What happens then? Right now, you don't have to believe me, the city of Tampa's got one of the lowest rates, if not the lowest rates in the whole West coast of Florida, all of it."

Council Chair Tom Scott apologized to those in the audience who came to testify over the high bills, but said water rates aren’t exactly within the city council’s purview.

"I don't understand how over 200 or 300 people can have the same problem at the same time. We do not have any direct jurisdiction over the administration, the mayor's office."

Water Department Director Brad Baird said the utility wants to be fair, and doesn’t want to cut of service for those who can’t pay an exorbitant water bill, but his department can justify higher bills for a majority of users.

"The bottom line or the total on leaked, it's 87 percent of the cases that we've been out on, we have found leaks. 87 percent, 27 out of the 31 we have found leaks. In at least 1, maybe 2 of the cases the customer admitted to overwatering."

A resident name Cheri, who would not give her last name, said when one crunches the numbers, the utility’s math doesn’t add up.

"The city council members have a hand on trying to look into it, but they cannot take the water department at their word right now. The water department really comes out, they look and say 'your sprinkler system is leaking however, with a sprinkler system, you can only push so much water through that pipe. Once again, when you do the math, it doesn't come out right. The City Council needs more data in front of them."

The Council voted to look into the issue further, and has asked that city staff to take a closer look at the higher bills.

Previous WMNF news coverage of Tampa Water Department

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