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State panel gets an earful from Aqua Utilities customers

NEW PORT RICHEY — When Lynda Wittkopp had her daughter and son-in-law over for Thanksgiving at her Jasmine Lakes home, they refused to shower there because of the smell coming from the faucet.

While they cleaned up the dinner dishes, the tap spewed black water. She promised them she didn't use that water for cooking.

"Do you have any idea how humiliating that is?" said Wittkopp, 73, who brought a sample of the black water on Wednesday to a special committee studying problems at small private utilities. The panel will propose draft legislation in February.

"Then I get to pay for it," she said. As a customer of Aqua Utilities, her water bills are between two and three times as high as customers of the county utility system.

Wittkopp was one of about 60 people who attended the meeting. Most attendees were fellow Aqua customers who shared an all-too-familiar tale of high rates and poor water quality.

"Basically we want Aqua Utilities out of Pasco County," said Lou Villei, who lives in nearby Palm Terrace Gardens. "We want the county to come in and purchase the system."

Aqua is negotiating with the Florida Governmental Utility Authority to sell all of its Florida assets. Statewide, the utility has 23,500 customers in 17 counties, including about 3,000 customers in Jasmine Lakes, Palm Terrace and Zephyr Shores.

The FGUA recently bought several other private systems in Pasco, with plans to eventually turn them over to Pasco County Utilities.

The 18-member panel largely listened to customers' complaints and asked questions about their specific situations. Most of the details of their draft legislation will be hammered out at future meetings.

"What you say today is going to directly affect the legislation coming out of this committee," said county Commissioner Jack Mariano, a longtime critic of Aqua and a committee member.

After the meeting, Mariano said he will push for a change that will require utilities to develop long-term maintenance plans when they purchase a system, including the effect on rates. He also wants to ensure that expenses related to asking regulators for a rate increase are not permanently included in bills.

But the biggest change, he said, is giving counties and cities the right of first refusal to purchase systems. He said local governments are often outbid by other private companies that often continue with poor service and high rates.

"If you put that plan in place, all the issues we've been fighting go away," he said.

Before Tuesday, the committee met five times and has considered changes to help small utilities. Those include tax exemptions and the ability to secure low-interest loans. According to Mariano, most changes that seek to help customers have been either rejected or not taken up.

Dave Bussey, who lives in Zephyr Shores, helped lobby for legislation last year that created the special committee. He is concerned that the panel might not adopt pro-customer recommendations.

"The reason you came about and what you're doing here seems to be different," he said. "It seems to be focused on something other than protecting us from a water predator."

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

State panel gets an earful from Aqua Utilities customers 12/05/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 5, 2012 8:43pm]
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