NEW PORT RICHEY — Violating the county's watering restrictions just got a lot more expensive, at least for first-timers.
Pasco County commissioners unanimously approved new fines for water scofflaws — people who run their sprinklers on the wrong day or at the wrong time.
First-time offenses, which were $30 plus court costs, now are $130. Those getting caught a second time face fines of $260, a $10 increase, while habitual offenders — those who get cited a third time and more — face the same fines, $500. That's because $500 is the maximum fine the county imposes for any violation.
Commissioners approved the heftier fines Tuesday with little discussion, after approving a resolution declaring April as Water Conservation Month.
Commission Chairman Jack Mariano voted with the others but said he preferred educating people first before punishing them.
The vote came two weeks after top administrators asked for the higher fines to cope with a three-year drought that has water regulators pondering whether to ask governments to enforce the toughest restrictions in history.
"This gives (the water restrictions) some real teeth," Jeff Harris, the county's environmental biologist, said of the higher fines.
Harris showed commissioners a PowerPoint presentation that outlined the conservation measures the county is taking. Among them:
• Restrict restaurants and public dining facilities to serve water to customers only upon request.
• Target residents with high water use with letters and tips to curb water use.
• Reduce water pressure where practical.
• Deputize 32 Pasco County Utility employees to supplement 19 code enforcement staffers in issuing citations.
• Begin a "flex" shift to patrol during early morning and night hours, seven days a week. Overtime was authorized for enforcement efforts.
• Accept reports of potential violators and mobilize code compliance staff to investigate.
Commissioners asked about a drought surcharge for heavy water users. That's tough to develop a system for with Pasco's outdated billing system, said Bruce Kennedy, assistant county administrator for utilities.
The county is currently replacing older meters with ones that can more closely monitor how much water is used and when.
Kennedy also said such a system has to take into account the size of a household. Larger families may use more water overall, but less per person than a smaller one.
"You've got to have equity," he said.
In other news
The County Commission unanimously approved hiring Richard E. Gehring as the new growth management administrator.
Gehring, 61, was planning director for Dunedin from 1974 to 1979 and city manager from 1979 to 1982. Since then he has worked as a private developer. He will replace Sam Steffey, who is retiring in April after 30 years of service. Gehring's salary is $100,000, and he will start immediately to ensure a smooth transition.
Lisa Buie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4604.