NEW PORT RICHEY — Joan Clark said she was stunned to learn her water bill had hit $3,000 because of a leaky pipe under her house.
"I couldn't believe it," said Clark, 67, of Port Richey. "It was more than a shock, and everybody I told, they couldn't believe it. Can you imagine getting a bill for $3,000 — for water?"
Her monthly bill usually comes to about $30.
She said she found out about the expense a couple of months ago — not when her bill arrived but when she called Pasco Utilities to ask why her water service had been turned off. After a staffer explained about the high water usage, she learned she owed the county about $3,000.
Clark, who's on a fixed income, said she asked for a break but was told her only option was a monthly payment plan. That will help, but it's left her pinching pennies trying to calculate the effect on her monthly household budget.
Now Clark and other customers in a similar bind are hoping to qualify for a discount under a new county program in which customers can pay the wholesale rate for leaked water instead of the regular rate.
It's hard to gauge how much customers can save under the program or what it will cost the utility in revenue. The amount will vary depending on the leak and where customers end up in the county's tiered rate structure.
But generally it's believed customers can save hundreds of dollars between the top rate of $5.40 per thousand gallons of water and the wholesale rate of $2.60.
County Commission Chairman Jack Mariano said the move to a discount came as a result of customers complaining about bills running into the hundreds — or even thousands — of dollars, often without knowledge that they had a leak.
Many said they thought the meter was faulty or a clerical error had occurred. After hearing otherwise from county staff, they learned their only recourse was a payment plan on top of their regular monthly bills.
"I just felt that if this was a one-time occurrence, and accidents do happen, then why would you want to penalize someone?" Mariano said. "Why make extra money off someone's misfortune?"
The program, which is set to roll out early next year, will charge customers the wholesale rate that the county pays its water supplier — Tampa Bay Water — and will apply to the amount above the usual monthly usage.
The plan comes as many counties, including Hernando, Hillsborough and Pinellas, already offer discounts for leaks. To qualify, customers must present utilities officials with documentation, usually a report or bill by a plumber, to show that a leak occurred and was fixed.
For folks who have already had leaks and paid to fix them, such as Clark, it might be too late for the discount.
The department hasn't yet received a directive to launch the program, although Customer Affairs manager Sue Chase said staff members try to work with customers saddled with big bills.
"We will have them fill out a form to request consideration for a rate adjustment," she said. "They have to provide documentation and if the adjustment is high, we will set up a payment schedule."
It's hard to gauge how many Pasco residents have had experiences similar to Clark's. Chase said the utility has about 100,000 customers and gets calls monthly about leaks and water bills.
Among those also wanting a discount is James "Buzz" Adamek.
His Port Richey business, Richey Racquet Fitness Gym and Racquetball Club, got a $1,500 water bill a few months ago caused by a cracked PVC pipe behind the club.
"They said it was leaking about 10,000 gallons a day. That's like a small swimming pool," Adamek said. "I thought it was a mistake. That's when they ran the report for me. They had an electronic meter and they could tell how much I use daily."
For now, Adamek is on a payment plan of $100 a month, but he's hoping for some leniency as the new program debuts.
"That would definitely be nice. It would average out my bills," he said.
Rich Shopes can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.