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After reviewing report, Tampa council cites 'perfect water storm' for high bills

TAMPA — For weeks, the Tampa City Council blasted water officials on the recent flood of high water bills.

Officials' explanations were insufficient; their answers, incomplete, members said. Some suggested the water department was hiding a larger problem.

On Thursday, after reviewing new information about the officials' same explanations, the council eased off its criticism.

"When I look at this and start to digest what it's all about, it's like the perfect water storm," said council member Charlie Miranda, tweaking a line often used by water officials to explain a rash of high bills.

For months, water officials have maintained the high bills are the aftermath of a "perfect storm" of factors — less rain, fewer watering restrictions, irrigation leaks and, in some cases, human error.

After reviewing a mayor's task force report released last week, council members largely conceded Thursday that the city staff's explanation makes sense.

Still, Miranda and Mary Mulhern remained convinced that some water meter readers had not been doing their job, partly adding to the problem.

Miranda cited data that showed one meter reader spent only 19 seconds between reads. "You can't go to one meter, read it, go to the next one, read it, in 19 seconds," he said. "Something had to be wrong."

Public works administrator Steve Daignault acknowledged that some meters were estimated when they were supposed to be read, typically because the meter was hidden or unreadable. These cases left at least four months between actual reads, potentially allowing leaks to persist unnoticed. Daignault did not know how much the problem contributed to the high bills.

But Daignault said investigations found nothing to support claims of a systemic meter-reading problem.

Tests also confirm the city's water meters and billing system are accurate, Daignault said.

The task force report, which cost the city $145,000, showed that the recent spikes in water usage may not be as anomalous as perceived.

In November and December, 4,455 accounts reported water usage that tripled their average usage of the past 14 months.

That's about 1,100 more cases with tripled usage than in November and December of 2009, but only 165 more than in those months in 2006.

For bills with usage that increased fivefold or tenfold, the 2010 numbers are in line with past years.

Indeed, the November and December billing periods of 2007 and 2008 had more bills with tenfold spikes than 2010.

And of those customers with at least tripled usage, fewer than 4 percent complained to the city.

Water meters are read every other month, with use estimated in off-months.

The city now is moving toward monthly meter readings, plans to redesign water bills for clarity, and uncover any hidden water meters.

As of last week, the city had completed 1,106 of the nearly 1,400 scheduled investigations of high bills.

Inspectors found leaks in just over half, and those accounts are eligible for bill adjustments if leaks are repaired.

The water department's customer service division resolved another 36 percent, many because the high bills were not irregular given past usage, Daignault said.

Another 13.5 percent, or 149 accounts, were the city's fault, he said, mostly because of meter reading errors.

With the council's assent coming two days after city elections, Daignault said that storm may be yielding.

"Among the perfect storm that's been going on is the overlay of this political process at the same time," he said. "So we're going to have a new council and a new mayor and we'll certainly bring them up to speed."

Jack Nicas can be reached at (813) 226-3401 or jnicas@sptimes.com.

After reviewing report, Tampa council cites 'perfect water storm' for high bills 03/24/11 [Last modified: Friday, March 25, 2011 12:00am]
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