Aqua Utilities customers speak out about high prices, poor water

NEW PORT RICHEY — State utility regulators got an earful Tuesday from Aqua Utilities customers who say they pay too much for poor water and sewer service.

The Florida Public Service Commission in May approved $2.6 million in higher rates for Aqua customers across Florida. The four-hour meeting on Tuesday, which drew 115 customers to Spartan Manor, was part of a formal challenge to that decision filed by a state agency that represents consumers. Three of the five commissioners who sit on the panel attended the meeting.

"Why are these people asking for increases when we're in a depression?" said Jeanie Girdner, a 64-year-old Jasmine Lakes resident. "Where do you propose we get the money?"

Rick Fox, who took over in August as president of the Florida operations of Pennsylvania-based Aqua Utilities, said the higher rates will help offset $11 million in capital improvements over the past three years.

"We know there is never a good time to ask for an increase in rates," he said. "Yet we also know that everybody wants, and needs, and demands, reliable water service. That comes with cost."

Fox pointed to a $250,000 upgrade to wastewater treatment ponds in Jasmine Lakes and replaced collection lines in Palm Terrace. He said Aqua's water quality meets all of the health standards required by water management districts and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Aqua serves about 23,000 homes in Florida, including roughly 3,000 Pasco homes in Jasmine Lakes, Palm Terrace and Zephyr Shores.

The Office of Public Counsel, which represents consumers in rate hearings, cited seven objections to the higher rates. It argues Aqua's quality of service — dubbed by regulators as "marginal" — is unsatisfactory. It also argues Aqua spent too much to defend the rate hearing and that customers simply cannot afford the higher bills.

J.R. Kelly, the head of the public counsel's office, said Aqua should be entitled to no more than a $312,000 increase, a "far cry" from the earlier award.

There will be one more public comment meeting today in Lakeland, and the commission will hold hearings on the appeal in Tallahassee in late November and early December. A final ruling is expected in February.

Tracy Murphy of Palm Terrace was one of several people who brought jars of cloudy or discolored water.

"You can see floaty things in here," she said. "This is what we're drinking."

Citing the high cost, several residents say they've cut back on watering their lawn and on showers. Some don't flush the toilet after each use.

"I don't think they're doing enough to correct these issues," said Tammy Charles of Jasmine Lakes. "I'm paying two water companies. I'm paying Aqua, and I'm paying the company I get bottled water from."

Under the new rates approved earlier this year, a typical home in Jasmine Lakes saw its monthly water and sewer bill increase from $107 to $140. Palm Terrace homes saw an increase from $148 to $157 and in Zephyr Shores bills jumped from $117 to $157.

Residents on Pasco County's water and sewer system, by contrast, pay $65 per month, and those bills will increase to $72 over four years.

Several elected officials argued Aqua's rates are unjustified.

"For far too long, Aqua Utilities has provided a poor product at an inflated price," said state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey. "People are moving out of the community because they cannot afford the water and sewer."

Rep. John Legg, R-Port Richey added that retirees and working class residents in Jasmine Lakes are the "poorest of the poor in our community." He said the phone in his office rings daily with complaints about the company.

And County Commissioner Jack Mariano, who has worked with utility opponents for months, urged regulators to compare Aqua's rates with nearby municipal systems. The increase, he said, "almost puts them at triple" the county rates.

Fox, the president of Aqua's Florida operations, said he understands "the difficulty that some of these folks are having." But he said the company has made numerous improvements. "It's now time to get repaid for these improvements."

Lee Logan can be reached at llogan@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6236.

Aqua Utilities customers speak out about high prices, poor water 10/11/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 11, 2011 8:53pm]

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