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Residents say Aqua Utilities doesn't deserve more money

NEW PORT RICHEY — They say the water leaves dishpans slimy, toilet bowls with black rings and ice cubes with gray bottoms. One woman won't put her dentures in it. Another worried about the bleach smell coming out of her shower head one night.

"All I could think," said Wanda Rigotti of Zephyrhills, "was my hair's going to look different."

Rigotti and more than a hundred other customers of Aqua Utilities packed the West Pasco Government Center on Friday evening to object to the company's triple-digit rate increases for water and wastewater rates.

The typical Jasmine Lakes resident, for instance, could see his monthly water bill jump from $25 to $41, and his wastewater bill go from $55 to $89.

Current bills already have a temporary increase approved in July. Before that increase went into effect, that same Jasmine Lakes resident had been paying a $25 water bill and a $25 wastewater bill.

Customers told the Florida Public Service Commission that they can't afford the hike, and Aqua doesn't deserve it.

"Our quality of water is poor. Our service is poor," said Gene Rigotti, husband of Wanda. "It's just like your water — it stinks."

In Pasco County, Aqua supplies water and wastewater to Jasmine Lakes Estates and Palm Terrace in Port Richey and Zephyr Shores in Zephyrhills.

Aqua, which covers a 16-county area, asked in May for rate increases worth $4.5-million for its water systems and $3.8-million for its wastewater systems. The Pennsylvania-based utility says the hikes are necessary to earn a fair rate of return on its investments.

John Lihvarcik, chief operating officer for Aqua, told the audience Friday that the utility had made a number of recent improvements to their systems, including installing new flushing equipment in the Palm Terrace water lines. He said the rates are roughly 12 to 15 years old.

"We've spent considerable capital in your area," he said.

Before the interim rates went into effect this summer, Palm Terrace residents who use 5,000 gallons of water were paying $26 a month. Under the proposed increases, they would see their bills go up to $41. Wastewater bills would go from the original $41 to $89.

Similar story with Zephyr Shores residents who use 5,000 gallons of water: Water bills go from $32 to $41 and wastewater bills from $61 to $89.

The commission expects to make its decision on these final rate hikes early next year.

John Butler, who lives in Zephyr Shores, said the temporary hikes were bad enough. He had a nearly $62 bill in August. This month, his bill was $103.52. "I think this is an excessive rate, and it's very unreasonable," he said.

He complained that bills don't reflect true usage. He said his daughter, a snowbird with a place in Zephyr Shores, was hit recently with a nearly $50 increase on her overall bill — and that's on months she's already back up north and not even using water.

State Sen. Mike Fasano and Rep. John Legg also spoke Friday in opposition to the rate hikes. They, too, cited what they say they hear from their constituents: Poor quality of water plus poor customer service.

Walter Dunn, also of Zephyr Shores, said he gets annoyed every time he has to call Aqua headquarters about a problem.

"They wouldn't know bottled water from an ice cream cone," he said. "We do have problems with communication with the office in wherever-it-is. … I still say they should turn around and pay us for the aggravation."

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727)869-6247.

Residents say Aqua Utilities doesn't deserve more money 09/26/08 [Last modified: Sunday, September 28, 2008 6:38pm]
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