TAMPA — In response to ongoing complaints about high bills, the City Council is poised to suspend the two highest billing rates for water consumption.
Six of the seven members said they would vote for the measure at Thursday's council meeting if doing so did not jeopardize the city's bond rating. Officials do not expect the change to affect the rating.
Mayor Pam Iorio urged members to suspend the rates. She said they were instituted during a drought but now cause unnecessary hardship for water customers.
"We need to get rid of the top two tiers," she told the St. Petersburg Times Monday. "Those two tiers don't allow room for an error somewhere in the system — the meter readers, the meters … or a leak."
The highest tiers take aim at water hogs, who would benefit from a change. But sometimes leaks or billing errors trigger the highest rates.
Iorio said she wants to suspend, not abolish, the rates so they could be reinstituted in a drought.
Tampa water rates are tiered progressively. As residents use more water, they pay more per gallon. If the council approves the measure Thursday, users will pay a flat rate per gallon after about 35,000 gallons. Currently, that rate doubles after about 56,000 gallons and triples after about 75,000.
Since their introduction last year, the two extra rates have raised about $500,000. Bonnie Wise, Tampa's chief financial officer, said that's a small fraction of the water department's annual budget of $118 million. Wise doesn't expect a change to affect the bond rating but will have a more definitive answer for the council Thursday.
"It's really such a small part of the entire water revenue system," Wise said. "I just don't personally see that one small item affecting the bond rating."
In an interview Monday, Iorio also pointed to possible misconduct by city meter readers.
"One theory we have about what the problem might be is a lack of real meter reading, and chronic estimations," she said. "We suspect we have issues with meter readers who estimated and estimated and estimated for multiple months."
If a meter reader were to estimate for months in a row, she said, a small leak could go unnoticed and become hugely expensive when the meter is finally read. The leak would continue and trigger significantly higher rates.
The mayor said that theory has been "crystallized" for her in the past week, but declined to detail why. Early last week she assembled a task force of city employees to investigate the rash of billing complaints.
"This is a theory right now," she said, "but it's one we feel has some plausibility to it."
Residents have posed the same theory to water officials and to the media for weeks. They complained their meters were covered in roots and grass, suggesting the meters had not been read for months.
Meters are supposed to be read every other month, and use is estimated in off-months. The city is working with Hillsborough County to receive monthly readings for neighborhoods with the most complaints (Dana Shores, New Tampa and Lake Ellen). The city aims to eventually read meters monthly throughout the city.
On Monday, every council member but Yvonne Yolie Capin was ready to suspend the top two rates. Capin said she needed more facts.
Some council members see problems deeper than tiered billing.
Joseph Caetano and Charlie Miranda suspect faulty billing software; Mary Mulhern's theory resembled the mayor's.
Chairman Thomas Scott said he will again propose an independent audit of the water department. His colleagues were cool to that proposal on Thursday.
The results of the task force investigation are due back next month. If meter readers are found at fault, "There will be ramifications," Iorio said.
"We're completely on this to get to the bottom of it," she said, "and believe me, we will."
Times staff writer Richard Danielson contributed to this report. Jack Nicas can be reached at (813) 226-3401 or firstname.lastname@example.org.