ST. PETE BEACH — After weeks of finger-pointing and hardball negotiations, Progress Energy is working to fix a small hotel owner's fiery electrical concerns.
But there's a catch that has angered the owner and threatens to spill over into court.
Progress Energy last week began installing a new transformer for the Plaza Beach Hotel, 4506 Gulf Blvd., which has had two electrical fires in less than a year.
The decision to install a new transformer came after the hotel hoisted two large banners blaming Progress Energy and the utility threatened to cut off power to the hotel.
Manager Robert Czyszczon hopes the new transformer will solve the problems he says have cost him $30,000 from electrical fires, one as recently as Jan. 22.
But he's not happy that Progress Energy plans to charge him up to $10,000 for the fix.
"I made it very clear that we're not paying for the pole or the transformer," he said. And he still wants the utility to compensate him for his losses.
Czyszczon (pronounced say-zahn) said he had an investigative engineer fly down from St. Louis and assess his electrical setup. He determined Progress Energy is to blame for the fires because the hotel's former transformer is "obsolete," he said.
Progress Energy officials disagree, saying the problem lay in the hotel's antiquated electrical system and that the company will not compensate him for losses.
The company rejected a claim he filed after the March fire, citing a state provision that protects the company from liability for damage from "acts of God," like fallen trees, errant squirrels and lightning strikes, said Suzanne Grant, Progress Energy spokeswoman.
The most recent fire is probably a result of Czyszczon's electrician not properly installing air conditioning units, she said, leaving them vulnerable to power surges. Two other businesses that share the hotel didn't have fires during power surges, she said.
In Czyszczon's view, Progress Energy's decision to install a new transformer proves the utility was at fault.
Not so, Grant said.
The company would rather bill Czyszczon for the new transformer than cut off his power, an option it floated last week that would have disrupted his business, she said.
Disconnecting power is standard practice, authorized by the Florida Public Service Commission, when a customer does not safely receive power.
Czyszczon has to pay for the upgrades or the costs would be absorbed by Progress Energy ratepayers, she said.
"That's necessary to be fair to all of our customers," Grant said.
Still, the mom-and-pop hotel isn't backing down. Czyszczon has launched an aggressive campaign targeting the utility and is still considering legal action.
Twin 30-foot banners now hang atop the hotel: "Progress Energy caused TWO FIRES at our hotel. Now they want to put us OUT OF BUSINESS." They will remain until he gets his money, he said.
He also added a flaming button on his Web site, plazabeach.com, linking to a narrative about the hotel's fires and struggles to receive compensation.
While the utility moves ahead with its solution, Czyszczon continues to fight.
His hotel is stretched for money. Czyszczon owes $40,000 for plumbing upgrades, and the company is threatening to take a lien on his property if he doesn't pay next week.
His insurance company has indicated it will pay for the damage, but that money won't arrive for six months at least, he said.
If Czyszczon can't reach a deal next week, he said he'll have no choice but to sue.
Grant wouldn't say what the utility would do if he refuses payment, though she added customers don't pay electric bills pretty often. "I think we'll look at that when the time comes," she said.