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Second Holiday home receives huge water bill from Utilities Inc. of Florida

HOLIDAY — Ana Vasquez was about to take a shower Tuesday morning and told her 10-year-old son Josh to go brush his teeth. But Mom, he said, there's no water.

Vasquez then found a yellow slip on her doorknob that said her water had been cut off because she hadn't paid the bill.

For $1,601.51.

The water company says Vasquez's two-bedroom house on Aegean Avenue in Holiday — home to her, her husband Pedro DelValle, who works for a flooring company, and their three boys, ages 7, 10 and 15 — used 487,178 gallons in 73 days. That's almost enough to fill all four pools at the New Port Richey Aquatic Center twice.

But where did all that water go? There was no obvious leak, only a slightly damp carpet.

Sound familiar? Vasquez lives just six blocks from Ed Cicerone, who recently had a $4,600 water bill after 1.4 million gallons disappeared. They have the same water company, Utilities Inc. of Florida.

• • •

Vasquez saw one of those yellow door hangers once before — on March 27, when the water meter was spinning out of control. The water company left her notice that she had a leak. (A week earlier, the utility found Cicerone's meter also spinning out of control.)

The notice was the first indication to Vasquez that there was anything wrong. Only later, in mid April, did her children discover some water in the corner under their bunk bed.

Her landlord, Mark Falcone of New Port Richey, came with a friend of his who is a plumber and found the culprit: a pinhole in a cigar-sized copper pipe underneath the house.

But the water returned to the kids' bedroom May 5, exiling them to the living room couch. It was shut off the weekend of May 9.

Now the problem was the water main coming from the meter and running to the spigot on the outside of the house near the children's room. Falcone and his plumber replaced the pipe and moved the spigot.

That was May 11, the same day Vasquez found a $1,200 water bill in her mailbox.

• • •

The water company charged Vasquez $1,197.14 in May and another $332.47 in June. With $30 (her typical bill) left over from March and $32 (also typical) in July, her total today is more than $1,600.

She wants to know why the company shut off the water only after letting the bill pile up.

"If you knew I had such a bad leak, why wasn't it shut off then?" she said.

The company's director, Patrick Flynn, said the water was shut off as soon as the meter reading indicated something was wrong, which was May 9. The meters are read monthly, he said.

The usage chart on Vasquez's bill shows 380,618 gallons in April, none in May, and 29,650 in June. Flynn said that chart may not reflect the accurate reading. If the reading was delayed, he said the company might have sent her an estimated bill in May and re-adjusted it in June.

The flooding hasn't returned since the landlord moved the spigot, and Falcone doubts the amount of flooding there accounts for the huge spikes in May and June.

"You know how many swimming pools that is?" Falcone said. "And all they had was a little wet carpet? Give me a break!"

Flynn said the water was absorbed by the dry soil surrounding the house.

After paying out of pocket for the $1,500 in repairs, Falcone doesn't know if he should install a well or reopen the bill in his own name. Until the water is turned back on, the family is living with Vasquez's sister and DelValle's mother.

"I've got to do something to make my tenant happy or I'm going to lose my tenant," Falcone said. "And then I'm going to lose my house because I can't make a mortgage payment without their rent."

• • •

As for the connection between Vasquez and Cicerone, there isn't one, says Flynn. "It's purely coincidence."

Cicerone's leak went unnoticed because of a glitch in the company's computer system, Flynn said. But, he said, the leak on Falcone's property was his responsibility.

Utilities Inc. of Florida serves fewer than 2,000 customers. A call to the corporate headquarters of its parent company in Illinois was not returned Tuesday.

After several stories appeared in the Times about Cicerone, the company agreed to waive his entire bill last week.

Flynn said he offered Vasquez a payment plan and "will make every effort to collect what's due to us."

State Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who helped Cicerone, said he was surprised to hear of a similar issue coming up again.

"You would think the utility company would notice that something is wrong," he said.

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

Second Holiday home receives huge water bill from Utilities Inc. of Florida 07/14/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 14, 2009 9:16pm]

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