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Holiday man receives $4,600 water bill

Ed Cicerone says he was unaware of a water leak until Utilities Inc. of Florida billed him $4,616.84 for 1.4 million gallons. He has since found interior damage, but his insurer denied his claim.

KATHLEEN FLYNN | Times

Ed Cicerone says he was unaware of a water leak until Utilities Inc. of Florida billed him $4,616.84 for 1.4 million gallons. He has since found interior damage, but his insurer denied his claim.

HOLIDAY — Ed Cicerone's two-bedroom home went through 1.4 million gallons of water in 20 days, enough to fill all four pools at the New Port Richey Aquatic Center five times.

At least that's what the water meter says. But there was no flooding in the house. No ponds in the back yard. The only sign is some bowing in the bathroom wall and minor tile damage.

Cicerone, 29, has no idea where all that water went, and no idea where he's going to find the more than $4,600 to pay the water bill. Fixing the leak could cost thousands more, and his homeowner's insurance has denied the claim.

"They've been very resistant this entire time," he said. "It makes me upset because I pay homeowners insurance every month, and they're definitely not there to help you out."

So for now Cicerone has shut off the water, and he and his 8-year-old son have moved into his girlfriend's house.

On March 20, the water main that serves Cicerone's 45-year-old stucco house on Trafford Road in Holiday was spinning out of control, so his water company turned it off. After checking the meter, Utilities Inc. of Florida told him he had a huge leak on his property.

Cicerone called Mark Walling from Hauck Master Plumbers.

"We've heard of leaks before," Walling said, "but he's the first million."

When Walling came to check it out, he found a big slab leak in Cicerone's bathroom.

The water company determined Cicerone had gone through 1.4 million gallons in 20 days. His monthly bill, which ordinarily runs about $20 or $30, was $4,616.84.

Cicerone, a software specialist at Metal Industries in Clearwater, said he couldn't afford to pay that. Even if the utility company stretched out the payments over a year, it would still come to $384.74 a month, which Cicerone said would be hard to fit into his budget.

And he couldn't imagine where the water had gone, seeing no obvious water damage aside from the slightly warping bathroom wall just above the leak the plumber had found. Cicerone has since spotted some cracks and discoloration in his bathroom tiles. But the damage is very slight — certainly not what you would expect from 1.4 million gallons.

• • •

Cicerone filed a homeowners insurance claim with Citizens Property Insurance Corp., but was denied. The insurer said the damage to the tiles was caused by a previous grout leak. Cicerone said there was no grout leak.

A spokesman for Citizens, John Kuczwanski, said while he could not comment on a specific policyholder, most policies do not cover constant water leaks that last more than 14 days.

Cicerone said Citizens wants him to break through the wall so a claims adjuster can examine the leak. But he's reluctant to do so, because if the claim is still denied, he says, he's still on the hook for the repairs, plus he'll have a broken wall.

Walling, the plumber, said he would have to rip out the kitchen in order to get to the leak to repair it. That would cost $5,000.

Or, Walling said, he could bypass the leak and reroute all the plumbing for $1,600. But Cicerone is waiting before doing either to see what the insurance company will cover.

Until then, all he can do is shut off the water, which has made the house uninhabitable for him and his son. They have been living with Cicerone's girlfriend of three years, Jamie Vlahakis of Holiday, who is a sales representative for a beauty supply company.

"That bill is catastrophic," she said. "It makes me want to cry. I just thank God they have my house to come to."

• • •

The plumber now suspects that, since the slab leak is just 10 feet from the drainage field for Cicerone's septic system, all that water seeped back into the ground. The drainage field isn't flooded, or even damp, but Walling said the field could have absorbed that much water.

"He's lucky it ran out of the house," Walling said. "If it was in the house, there'd be no house left."

Or perhaps the meter was at fault, and there was no 1.4 million gallons. But the water company checked the meter three times and found it functioning fine, Cicerone said.

Utilities Inc. of Florida serves fewer than 2,000 customers. After being contacted by The St. Petersburg Times, the company's director, Patrick Flynn, said the company would adjust Cicerone's bill, but declined to give details.

Cicerone also filed a complaint with the Florida Public Services Commission last week. The water company has until June 23 to respond.

Isaac Arnsdorf can be reached at iarnsdorf@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6232.

Holiday man receives $4,600 water bill 06/08/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 9, 2009 11:04am]
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