ZEPHYRHILLS — John Rubery came to the City Council on Monday evening, hoping to get his $3,000 water bill washed away.
Instead, he got a 12-month payment plan.
"You've made your decision," Rubery, 62, told the council. "I'm still paying for this mystery."
A seasonal resident who normally uses $20 to $30 of water a month, Rubery was stunned to receive a $4,600 utility bill back in February, followed by a $500 bill in March. A leaky pipe was discovered at his Sunvalley Drive mobile home while he was away in New Hampshire and renters were living at his home.
After Rubery complained, the city's utility department credited Rubery about $2,400 for sewage costs. The balance on his account now, including late fees, is about $3,000 — or about a third of his annual income as a disabled Vietnam veteran.
Council members said they sympathized with Rubery: "If any one of us sitting here had received a bill like that, first of all, you'd have to pick us up off the floor," council President Lance Smith said.
But they also said it would be unfair to forgive the balance and pass those costs on to the city's other utility customers. Like most utility systems, Zephyrhills holds the homeowner responsible for any pipe leakage issues on his or her property.
Rubery, however, challenged the accuracy of the bill.
"The more I talk to people, the more I can't (see) how I could use 600,000 gallons of water," Rubery said. "I think I've been unfairly charged."
The city says Rubery used more than 600,000 gallons of water within a 45-day span. When the city's meter readers saw Rubery's meter spinning out of control, they shut the water off, and Rubery found out about the mishap. A plumber fixed a leaky pipe under the mobile home, and the readings returned to normal.
Even so, if that much water had been leaked over time, Rubery said at the council meeting, then why wasn't there a "red river" in front of his home in the Sundance Mobile Home Park?
Rubery said his neighbors told him there wasn't even a puddle or any standing water.
David Henderson, who oversees the city's utilities, said Rubery likely had more than a simple dripping pipe, but perhaps more like a running pipe, with water flowing in a stream the width of a pencil.
Henderson stands by the city's meter readers, saying that city ordinances forbid the city from profiting from residents' water usage. The department is regularly audited, Henderson said, and "you can't tamper with the register on a meter."
Rubery was unhappy with the council's decision, and not ready to give up the fight.
He said he was considering hiring a lawyer.
"I thought this would be fair," he said.
Ebony Windom can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.