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Pasco customers keep up fight against new Aqua Utilities rates

PORT RICHEY — A typical Jasmine Lakes home will pay an extra $22 a month for water and sewer services under new rates set this week by state utility regulators. Other Pasco customers of Aqua Utilities will see a smaller increase.

But the fight by irritated customers against their water provider is not over. A formal protest of the new rates is in the works. County Commissioner Jack Mariano is asking for an independent audit of Aqua's system. And legislation is being drafted to make it easier for local governments to take over poorly performing utilities.

"I don't want you to quit for a minute," he said Tuesday evening at a meeting of the Jasmine Lakes civic association. "I really think we can turn this thing around."

Overall, the Public Service Commission granted Aqua a $2.6 million rate increase, down from its $4.1 million request. The utility has 23,500 customers in Florida, including three systems in Pasco. The company says the extra revenue will pay for statewide capital projects, including replacing water mains and treatment systems.

Water and sewer bills for an average Jasmine Lakes home that uses 5,000 gallons a month would grow by $22 to $120. Bills for a similar home in Palm Terrace or Zephyr Shores would go up by almost $9 to $132.

Those affected by the rate increase have until July 4 to file a formal protest of the ruling. J.R. Kelly, the head of the Office of Public Counsel that represents consumers in rate hearings, said his office is still considering whether to file a protest. But he cautioned that a broad challenge can be counterproductive.

"Let's say we can win $500,000," he said, referring to a hypothetical sum knocked off the overall rate increase. "But if they get awarded $1 million in rate case expenses, what have we won?"

In the latest rate hearing, the utility was awarded $778,000 to cover legal expenses, consultants and travel costs.

A protest could also be filed by an individual resident. Once a protest is filed, Mariano said he will ask Pasco County to formally join in. Such a move, he said, would allow county lawyers to ask Aqua officials questions under oath.

Aqua Utilities Florida president Judy Wallingford said she respects the right to challenge the new rates, but she said a drawn-out rate hearing can ultimately increase customers' bills.

"We would just hope if it does happen, we can all work together to come to some resolution quickly," she said.

In its order approving the rate increase, a unanimous Public Service Commission wrote the utility's water quality is "satisfactory" but that the overall quality of service is marginal. The order noted the "outpouring of customer frustration" and said there is "a disconnect between the utility and its customers."

That disconnect was on full display Tuesday night. Kim Hammond, 51, moved to Jasmine Lakes two years ago but said she was relatively new to the dispute with Aqua.

"My question is, can we drink this water?" she asked the crowd of about 100. Their response? A loud chorus of, "No!" One man shouted, "I can't even give it to my dog."

Because the marginal quality of service, Aqua will undergo additional customer service monitoring and receive a reduced return on equity.

Mariano plans to send a letter protesting the decision today to Gov. Rick Scott, along with petitions from Aqua customers in Pasco. The letter calls for Aqua to set up customer service offices in Florida rather than company headquarters in Pennsylvania, and asks for an independent audit of Aqua's water and wastewater delivery system.

Wallingford said an audit would be redundant because the PSC already determined the water quality is satisfactory. She said the company understands customers' concern and is revamping its customer service operation.

"It just means we have some work to do and we look forward to working on it," she said.

Several Aqua customers recently met with House Speaker-designate Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, to discuss legislation to address the dispute. One concept is to make it easier for local governments to use eminent domain to take over a utility with a consistently bad record of customer service. Another idea would create additional standards for all investor-owned utilities.

Weatherford said he would take a "close look" at the eminent domain provision. He asked Rep. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, to sponsor legislation that ensures Floridians get quality water at an affordable price.

"I think it's an issue that needs to be addressed," he said.

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

Pasco customers keep up fight against new Aqua Utilities rates 06/15/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 15, 2011 7:27pm]
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