TAMPA — With three weeks of tension built up in the battle over high water bills in Tampa, the two sides met Friday: upset residents and the city water department.
After more than two hours of questions, answers, accusations, and rebuttals, both camps looked weary, and neither was satisfied.
"Look, we want to resolve this issue," Tampa's public works administrator Steve Daignault said after the meeting. "We understand people are angry and frustrated, but we have to treat each case on its own merits."
All morning, Daignault had maintained city water meters are accurate and the high bills are due to an array of problems — none of which are the city's. And all morning, a room of nearly 100 homeowners wasn't buying it.
"Do you not think it's unusual though that out of 35 residents in Laurel Ridge, that over 25 of them have seen a sharp increase" in their water bills, asked Mike Michelson, vice president of the homeowners' association in the Hunter's Green neighborhood. "You don't find it highly unlikely or unusual?"
Daignault and water director Brad Baird explained the spike in high bills is the result of a "perfect storm" of factors: a dry fall, homeowners watering yards more often, more expensive water rates, and three recent freezes that could have cracked homeowners' pipes.
The bottom line is, officials said, accurate meters means residents used the water they were billed for. Now, through home inspections, officials are trying to piece together why each home used more water.
Inspectors have already examined 86 homes, mostly in the Dana Shores, New Tampa, and Lake Magdalene/Lake Ellen areas. Inspectors found leaks in 51 of the homes, according to city data. In about 30 cases, the city concluded residents were overwatering or the bill was not unusually high. In a handful of others instances, results were inconclusive. There were two cases in which city workers misread the meters, but the difference was "very slight," said water department spokesman Elias Franco.
But now the inspections are raising additional questions. Some residents say the city has used a simple leak as a scapegoat for a high bill. Officials say homeowners underestimate how much water one leak can waste.
On Friday, Barb O'Malley of Tampa Palms challenged officials when they used her home, which was recorded as using 183,000 gallons in two months, as an example of a leak's power.
According to a packet officials distributed to residents, O'Malley's home had two leaking toilets, a broken sprinkler head, and a leak in her main irrigation pipe. Baird said inspectors reported that water "was coming out very badly."
"That's not accurate," O'Malley responded.
Floyd Grasty, the O'Malleys' irrigation specialist, agreed. He said he was present for the city inspection and that there was only a minor leak on a sprinkler head. One inspector had to hold his knife blade up to the water meter to see if the dial moved, which would indicate a leak, Grasty and O'Malley said. With a significant leak, the dial would be spinning, Grasty said, "but it was so minute you couldn't tell with the naked eye."
Grasty said even if the O'Malleys had all the leaks the city claimed they did, they could not have used that much water.
"That'd be like dumping nine-plus swimming pools in your yard. They'd have massive erosion. It just makes no sense," he said.
Franco, the water spokesman, said the home's meter was tested and the reading was accurate. He also pointed out that in at least 29 contested cases in Dana Shores, the readings of Tampa water meters matched the meter readings of the Hillsborough County water department, which handles waste water for the neighborhood.
Officials encouraged homeowners to file complaints on the water department website, and pledged to inspect every complaint. On Friday, 135 investigations were pending, and 30 more residents signed up for inspections at the meeting.
If homeowners repair a leak on their property, the city will charge any excess water usage at the lowest rate. Tampa water rates are tiered progressively, so as residents use more water, they are charged more per gallon. Those surcharges dramatically increased twice last year, heightening bills and complicating the issue, officials said.
Daignault and Baird disputed several theories on the high bills, including air in the pipes and city workers not reading the meters. But one hypothesis — that there is an error in the equation that calculates the bills — gave them pause. The bills are calculated by the city information technology department, Daignault said, and he will investigate the possibility.
Likewise, the pair had answers for nearly every billing question, except one.
Michael Walters of Hunter's Green brought in his two most recent meter readings. With simple math, it shows he should have been charged for about 23,000 gallons on his most recent bill. Instead he was charged for 38,000.
"I don't know," Daignault said when asked about the bill. "I can't explain that one."
Jack Nicas can be reached at (813) 226-3401 or [email protected]