TAMPA — In response to hundreds of complaints and mounting inquiry, the city stood defiantly by its water-billing system Wednesday, saying leaks accounted for tens of thousands of extra gallons on recent bills.
"We're trying to give you an order of magnitude of what these small leaks can do," Tampa public works administrator Steve Daignault said to reporters while explaining that a running toilet can waste 108,000 gallons per month. "Those are meaningful leaks. These are significant."
Officials also distributed a list of 24 possible reasons for high water bills, which included broken irrigation pipes from recent freezes, overwatering after a dry autumn and 10 varieties of leaks.
As of Wednesday, the city had inspected 31 homes from customers who complained of uncharacteristically high water bills: 27 showed leaks, mostly broken or faulty sprinkler heads; two showed overwatering; and two were inconclusive, according to city data. No inspection has indicated the city incorrectly billed residents, officials said.
But many residents were still disbelieving, some asserting their pipes are free of leaks and others insisting leaks could not have accounted for so much.
"We've had inspectors in and out of the house … and if there was a gallon of water unaccounted for, they would've seen it," said Karen Popp of South Tampa, who is struggling with a $770 water bill as she prepares to move. "I'm not just going to roll over and give them an extra $700."
City inspectors are scheduled to review Popp's system today. If a leak is found and she repairs it, the city will adjust her bill so excess usage is billed at the lowest rate. Tampa water rates are tiered progressively, so as residents use more water, they are charged more per gallon.
Daignault and Tampa water director Brad Baird said three recent spells of freezing weather broke 571 city pipes, and they suspect similar damage was done to residential irrigation systems.
They also said handheld devices require workers to input anomalous readings twice. Then, these irregular readings — about 100 per day — are audited, and in about 10 percent of cases, workers are sent to reread the meters.
Baird said he remembers only one case in the past 25 years when the city was at fault for an abnormally high bill.
The city is scheduled to inspect at least 14 more homes this week, including two in New Tampa that were recently billed for more than 180,000 gallons.
Both of those homeowners, Michael Tucker and Michael O'Malley, said they are confident their systems are free of leaks, particularly any that would waste such large amounts.
"We had our own irrigation people come again today and, yes, in fact, we have nothing wrong," said O'Malley, who faces a $2,700 bill. "I'm not trying to be adversarial in this, I just want some answers."
Jack Nicas can be reached at (813) 226-3401 or email@example.com.