NEW PORT RICHEY — Summertree residents say they can't stand the taste, smell or yellowish color of their water, but what irks them more is that their utility provider, Utilities Inc. of Florida, is seeking permission from state regulators for a double-digit rate increase.
The residents are so upset that two bus loads from Summertree, a development of about 1,200 homes south of State Road 52, are set to travel to Tallahassee on Thursday to appear before the Public Service Commission to protest the company's hike request.
"Everybody is disgusted with Utilities Inc. of Florida," said Summertree resident Ann Ryan, a retired teacher who presides over the citizens ad-hoc group Summertree Water Alliance. "We are disgusted with their greed and the quality of their water."
The residents say they already pay the highest water rates in Pasco and receive poor service in return, despite efforts by Utilities Inc. to inject chemicals to boost safety a couple years ago. Average water and sewer bills at Summertree run $85 a month — about double what many Pasco Utilities customers pay.
Many Summertree residents refuse to drink the water and say it leaves stains on toilets and bathtubs and clogs shower heads with minerals. Some worry it might damage kidneys, although the state Department of Environmental Protection has said the water meets safety requirements.
"It's just not fair what's happening to them," said state Sen. Wilton Simpson, R.-Trilby, who plans to attend the hearing to oppose the hike, along with state Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Trinity, and Pasco Tax Collector Mike Fasano.
"I think it's important that the PSC sees the amount of local support there is for these citizens," Simpson said. "For far too long there's been this notion that the PSC is not doing its job. It's not my job to criticize the PSC, but these residents need some help. This doesn't pass the fair test in my book."
The company insists it's being fair after investing $2 million in a new water main, generators and other equipment to improve water quality. The rates charged now don't include those improvements but are based on costs incurred through 2008.
In an email to the Times, Tom Oakley, chief of staff for parent Utilities Inc., said resolving aesthetic issues like color and odor would mean connecting to the county's water supply at a cost of $10 million.
"Given the reluctance of customers to contemplate higher rates to eliminate the aesthetic issues and given that there are no cheap alternative sources of water to solve the problem, we're left where we are on this issue for now," he wrote.
The dispute has dragged on since May when Utilities Inc. of Florida filed its request for a 36 percent water rate increase and an 8.5 percent sewer rate hike. In August, about 130 residents crowded a PSC meeting in New Port Richey to blast the proposal. The dispute eventually caught the attention of local legislators.
Last month, Simpson filed a bill to require private utilities to keep their rates comparable to those of municipal- and county-owned utilities and to improve water quality for taste, odor and appearance.
Summertree resident Richard Nielsen said he purchases special cleansers to clean the "black stains" left on his toilets and he changes his water filters almost weekly.
"Last summer, two houses down, the person in that home literally had black water coming out of her shower and in her toilet, black water," he said. "It's ridiculous. We as consumers have no recourse for what they gives us for water. We are paying for bad water, a lot for bad water. Why? Why?"
PSC staff is recommending the board approve a 29 percent increase instead of the 36 percent hike sought by the utility.
Residents said it sounds like the staff is rubber-stamping Utilities Inc.'s request.
Ryan noted that key facts were missing from the staff's report to the commission, among them that the residents made 3,000 complaints about Utilities Inc. of Florida and that a petition with 500 signatures was delivered to the Office of Public Counsel, the state's consumer advocate in utility matters, in connection with this rate case.
"I think there in an obligation of the PSC staff to record the information correctly and get it to the commission. They haven't done that," Ryan said.
Rich Shopes can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.