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Aqua Utilities fee hike protest cites subpar water

PORT RICHEY — More than 400 people gathered Tuesday night at the Jasmine Lakes Civic Association to protest what they say are high rates for poor water from their private water company, Aqua Utilities.

The meeting was held to boost opposition to the utility's request for higher rates, which would add about $40 a month to the average Jasmine Lakes customer's bill. The Florida Public Service Commission will consider that request at a May 24 meeting in Tallahassee.

Aqua's rates last went up in April 2009, but some Pasco customers have long complained about subpar water quality.

"You put a glass of water on a counter and you leave it there for a little while, it begins to stink," said Jasmine Lakes resident Jim Foster. "It's ridiculous. We need county water, for health reasons if nothing else."

Aqua has requested a rate increase to collect nearly $3.8 million more from 23,500 customers in 17 Florida counties, including Pasco.

The company says most of the increase would help recover more than $11 million that has been spent or is budgeted on statewide capital projects, including replacing water mains and treatment systems. The company also cites a 16 percent drop in water use since rates last increased, causing a decline in revenue. The company says the dropoff is mainly because of more people installing private wells.

Under current rates, Aqua said in a September rate increase application, it "will not be in a position to meet the needs of its customers for safe and reliable water and wastewater services."

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

Dave Bussey, an Aqua customer in Zephyr Shores, helped organize Tuesday's meeting and is helping residents across Florida take on the company.

"We heard a lot of really sad stories about how poor their water quality is," he said. "They're ready to stand up and do something about it."

In approving the earlier rate increase, state regulators set up a tiered rate system that left some communities paying significantly higher bills than others. Now, the company wants to establish uniform rates for all of its systems.

A water customer who uses 5,000 gallons a month would owe about $50 a month under the proposal. For customers in Jasmine Lakes, that would roughly double their water bills.

But customers in Palm Terrace and Zephyr Shores, who already pay about $52 for $5,000 gallons of water, would get a slight break on their monthly bills, according to documents sent to the Public Service Commission.

Typical sewer bills for all three Pasco communities, though, would go from about $71 to $85.

Also part of the last rate increase was a requirement by commissioners that Aqua submit to water quality and customer service monitoring at several of its systems. After that agreement, Bussey said Aqua began making improvements in his Zephyr Shores community.

"They made the taste better, the color was better," he said. "But when you go to a place like Jasmine Lakes, nothing's been done over there. They still have terrible water.

"Doesn't it make sense that they should fix everybody's quality of water and customer service issues before they get a rate increase?"

In a report on its customer service and water quality efforts, Aqua said it provided regulators with "thousands of pages of data, documents, audio tapes and reports" that show the company "has good customer service and consistently complies with environmental requirements." The company also highlighted efforts to improve water quality at the seven systems that recorded the most complaints.

The Public Service Commission staff will make a recommendation on the proposed rate increase in early May, and the five-member commission is scheduled to vote on the plan a few weeks later.

Lee Logan can be reached at llogan@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6236.

>>By the numbers

$40 Proposed increase in an average Jasmine Lakes customer's monthly water and sewer bill.

23,500 Aqua Utilities customers statewide facing proposed rate hikes.

$3.8M Additional revenue the proposed rate hike would raise.

Source: Public Service Commission

Aqua Utilities fee hike protest cites subpar water 03/09/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 9, 2011 8:28pm]
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