DUNEDIN — Lauren Merola feels powerless.
For two months this summer, she got electric bills that were far higher than normal. The reason may not have been hot weather: Last week her neighbor, Matthew Sanders, 27, was arrested by the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office and charged with petty theft. According to an arrest report, Sanders was stealing Merola's electricity.
But when Merola, 24, told Progress Energy about Sanders' arrest, the power company refused to reduce her bills, which included a July bill of $292 that was nearly double her typical summer bill.
Though Merola works full-time as a patient-care technician at Morton Plant Mease Hospital, money is tight. She's frustrated that she will be required to pay for electricity she didn't use.
"I live paycheck to paycheck," said the single mother of two daughters ages 1 and 4. "I'm a victim. I don't feel like I should be responsible."
Rob Sumner, spokesman for Progress Energy Florida, said while he sympathizes with Merola, the solution to her problem is not within Progress Energy's purview.
"Her course is to go through the court system," he said, but added, "We will most certainly work with her to break this into payments that she can afford."
Suing the person who stole her electricity would cost more money, Merola said, and wouldn't pay her power bills.
"We have no money to take him to court," Merola said. "It costs $50 to file a civil suit, but how long will that take?"
Merola isn't the first Progress Energy customer to ask for relief from a high bill because of stolen electricity, but Sumner said the company's policy requiring payment remains the same.
He suggests that people keep an eye open for such thefts.
"I would encourage people to look around their property to make sure things are in order," he said.
It was one of Merola's neighbors who last week spotted the bright orange electrical cord drawing current from her unit in a triplex at Curlew Road and Park Lane in Dunedin.
The neighbor, Stephen Mazzullo, 55, lives in the unit between Merola and Sanders. He said he found the electrical cord, which was buried under dirt and leaves, plugged into an outside electrical outlet on Merola's unit, tied to a weed trimmer leaning against a window, and poked through Sanders' window screen.
Four months ago, Mazzullo said he had allowed Sanders to use his electricity while he got back on his feet. However, Mazzullo said he had to pull the plug after two months.
"They were doing nothing and I said, 'Well, you're running up my bill,' " he said.
Since then, Mazzullo had often heard Sanders' window air-conditioner buzzing, so he believed Sanders was paying for his own electricity — until he discovered the cord.
As of Wednesday, Merola hadn't heard any details from Progress Energy about a payment plan for her July bill. In addition to holding a full-time job, she is a nursing student at St. Petersburg College. Now she's pondering how to fit in some overtime work so she can pay her electric bill.
"Progress Energy should have insurance for things like this. They should look out for their customers," Merola said. "If I don't have the money, I'm not going to have power with two kids at home."
Diedra Rodriguez can be reached at (727) 445-4154 or firstname.lastname@example.org.