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Aqua customers in uproar over utility's request for higher rates

NEW PORT RICHEY — Her drinking water smells like a swimming pool, her toilet water turns reddish brown when she has been away for a while, and her bill is at least $60 — even when she has been gone for weeks.

Georgia Desimini is hardly a happy customer of Aqua Utilities. So the Jasmine Lakes resident can't believe the company wants permission to raise her sewer rates and double her water bill.

"I'm not going to afford it," she said in an interview.

Desimini was one of nearly 300 Aqua Utilities customers who packed the West Pasco Government Center on Wednesday evening. Their overwhelming pleas to representatives of the Florida Public Service Commission?

Don't grant this rate request.

"Aqua Utilities needs to get out of Florida altogether," said Palm Terrace resident Louis Villei.

A boisterous crowd, which had earlier booed an Aqua official and waved signs like "Dump Aqua," went wild.

Aqua Utilities, a private company, has filed a rate increase request to raise nearly $3.8 million from 23,500 customers in 17 counties, including Pasco.

Most of the increase is related to recovering $11 million that has been spent or will be spent on statewide capital projects, including the replacement of water mains and treatment systems, the utility says.

Aqua Utilities serves Jasmine Lakes and Palm Terrace in west Pasco and Zephyr Shores on the east side of the county.

Jasmine Lakes resident Celeste Snyder said she uses bottled water to make coffee and tea because the tap water tastes so bad. Why should the utility get more money for bad water, she asked. And how will residents afford higher rates?

"What do we do, stop taking showers?" Snyder said. "Maybe we should go over to the gas station and take a sink bath?"

"Throw the fat cats out," Snyder said. "There's too many people getting rich off us."

State legislators and Pasco Commissioners Michael Cox and Jack Mariano spoke against the increase as well, pointing out that the Jasmine Lakes neighborhood is an older community of seniors and families struggling in this economy.

State Sen. Mike Fasano urged the commission staff to drive around the community.

"Take a look at how these people are barely surviving," he said. "Now a major national company comes to Florida and says we don't care."

State Rep. John Legg called Aqua's move "basically reverse Robin Hood," and Rep. Will Weatherford told the commission staff that the public agency needed to fix the problem it had caused in the first place in 2008 by setting up a tiered rate system for Aqua that left some communities, such as the three in Pasco, bearing the brunt of rate hikes. When customers responded to the high rates by conserving water, Aqua lost money — something they have cited in their request for higher rates now.

"Until you fix what you created two years ago," Weatherford said, "it (the new rate increase) is not even worth talking about."

Aqua wants to establish uniform rates for all its systems, which means some neighborhoods would pay a lot more and others a little less than what they've been paying for water.

A water customer who uses 5,000 gallons a month would owe about $50 under the proposed increase.

For Jasmine Lakes customers, that's a big increase. That same customer now pays about $24 a month.

But Palm Terrace and Zephyr Shores customers who already pay $52 for 5,000 gallons of water would now pay a little less, about $50, according to documents sent to the state commission.

The typical wastewater bills for all three Pasco communities, however, would go from about $71 to $85, a 20 percent jump.

All this would come on top of the hikes that went into effect in April 2009.

Those hikes sent the typical water and sewer bill from $65 to $118 for a Palm Terrace customer and from $91 to $118 for a Zephyr Shores customer. A Jasmine Lakes customer who uses about 5,000 gallons a month saw his total monthly bill, including water and sewer, increase from $50 to $94.

Public Service Commission staffers expect to make a recommendation on the latest rate hike request by February. The commission would vote on the proposal a couple of weeks after that.

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

by the numbers

$50 Amount a water customer who uses about 5,000 gallons a month would pay. Residents using that amount in Jasmine Lakes only pay $24 now.

$3.8M Amount the company hopes to raise with its increase.

23,500 Number of customers it has across 17 counties, including Pasco.

Aqua customers in uproar over utility's request for higher rates 10/20/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 20, 2010 8:51pm]
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