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PSC approves higher rates for Aqua Utilities customers

TALLAHASSEE — Despite protests from two busloads of dissatisfied Pasco customers and local politicians, state utility regulators approved a hike of Aqua Utilities Florida's water and sewage rates.

The Florida Public Service Commission voted late Tuesday to grant Aqua a $2.6 million overall rate increase, significantly down from its $4.1 million request. It was still more than residents who made the trip wanted to see, including Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, whose district includes Jasmine Lakes.

"I would have liked to have seen Aqua get no rate increase," he said Wednesday. "I don't think they deserve one."

The increase means some customers, especially Jasmine Lakes residents, can expect higher Aqua bills. Public Service Commission accountants were still calculating new billing rates on Wednesday following late decisions by commissioners.

The new rates, though, shouldn't be too far from estimates recommended by staff, and may be lower in some cases. For Jasmine Lakes, water and sewage bills for the average home that uses 5,000 gallons a month would grow by $24 under the staff recommendation.

For Palm Terrace and Zephyr Shores, the water portion of the bill would stay about the same, but homes using 5,000 gallons would see an increase of approximately $10 for sewer costs, according to staff.

The proposed rate hikes have attracted plenty of negative reaction among Pasco customers since Aqua made its request in September. Months-old frustration culminated Tuesday in about 100 customers boarding Greyhound buses for the Tallahassee hearing. Customers of Jasmine Lakes, Zephyr Shores, Palm Terrace and Lakeland brought tiny neon picket signs proclaiming, "Stop Aqua," "We Want Pasco!" and "PSC Help Us!"

"The message is the water's dirty, we can't afford the high rates anymore," said Sandy Butterfield, of Jasmine Lakes. "Let's get real."

About three dozen testified about poor customer service and contaminated, discolored water, which one person called fit for flushing the toilet and nothing else. Zephyr Shores resident Gus Alexakos brought socks to press his point — one white and the other white-turned-yellow after a spin in Aqua water.

Several customers said their bills have become unaffordable over recent years.

"It's impossible for a fixed income person to keep up with that," said Ken Winnacott of Port Richey. "We can't sustain living in this area with this water."

Rep. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, told commissioners that his office received more e-mails about Aqua than any issue before the Legislature this year.

"We see a system that may be unsustainable in its current form," he said.

Fasano said he was encouraged by the commission knocking Aqua's service quality from the staff-recommended rating of "satisfactory" to "marginal" after listening to residents' testimony.

The revised rating means Aqua will undergo additional monitoring. The commission also reduced the company's return on equity as a result.

Commissioners also raised the threshold where higher per-gallon rates kick in, from 5,000 gallon increments to 6,000 — an effort to give customers some wiggle room in the lower tiered rate.

"Unfortunately we didn't win the war," Fasano said, "but I believe that some of the battles were won in preventing Aqua to get a full $4.1 million."

Further, commissioners rejected a pay raise for an Aqua senior vice president and raise rates for Aqua employees.

"It's a tight time for everybody, and I just find it hard to justify," PSC Chairman Art Graham said.

Aqua is still reviewing the commission's decision, said Aqua Utilities Florida president Judy Wallingford. She offered no immediate reaction but defended the need for a rate increase, citing costs of capital improvements to old systems.

Several customers said they hoped Pasco County or the Florida Governmental Utility Authority would purchase Aqua's local water systems. If an entity were to make an offer, Wallingford said, Aqua "would evaluate what they had to say to us and respond."

"No customer likes a higher bill and we understand that," she said, "but we've made a lot of improvements to the system. It needed a lot of attention."

Reach Katie Sanders at (850) 224-7263 or ksanders@sptimes.com.

PSC approves higher rates for Aqua Utilities customers 05/25/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 25, 2011 8:54pm]
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