NEW PORT RICHEY — Summertree residents say recent talks with Utilities Inc. of Florida to improve their water quality are leaving a bad taste.
For years, residents of the west Pasco neighborhood south of State Road 52 have complained about the yellowish color and bad taste of their water. Some refuse to drink it. But they were floored last May when provider Utilities Inc. of Florida applied for a 36-percent rate hike.
"We already pay the highest rate in the county," said Ann Marie Ryan, who presides over the ad-hoc group Summertree Water Alliance.
Last November, the neighbors thought they won a partial victory when the Public Service Commission awarded the company a smaller increase, though still high at 20 percent. The commission also demanded that the sides negotiate a permanent solution to the water-quality dispute.
Now, residents say, Utilities Inc. is negotiating in bad faith. They say the company has hired a lobbyist to try to weaken a bill in Tallahassee that would limit how much utilities can charge while also forcing them to improve water quality.
"We found out that Utilities Inc. of Florida, while supposedly working with us, are working against us," Ryan said.
State Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, the bill's chief sponsor, said he pushed for the legislation after reading a Tampa Bay Times article about water at Summertree. Later, he learned that Summertree's plight isn't unusual in Florida.
"The problem they are having at Summertree is happening all over the state and that is why I'm fighting for this bill and why I believe we will have unanimous support for this bill on the floor of the Senate," he said.
An aide for Simpson said a lobbyist, Lila Jaber, contacted the office several times on behalf of Utilities Inc. to try to amend Simpson's bill.
Tom Oakley, chief of staff for the company's parent, Illinois-based Utilities Inc., said in an email that some executives have contacted Simpson to offer their help.
"Our senior people in Florida have taken the initiative, on their own, to meet with Sen. Simpson to discuss these issues and his broader concerns about encouraging infrastructure investment in Florida and how we can be helpful," he wrote.
Summertree residents, meanwhile, are launching a letter-writing campaign to push lawmakers to back the bill.
Rich Shopes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6236.