TAMPA — After a testy hour-long debate Thursday, the City Council is considering an independent audit of the water department and a billing change to charge users less if the department cannot explain a high bill.
The meeting also offered hints that the highest rates for Tampa's water may drop.
Council member Joseph Caetano said the mayor told him she wants to abolish the two highest rates, and public works administrator Steve Daignault recommended they be suspended.
City Attorney Chip Fletcher offered a resolution to suspend the highest rates, which charge certain users as high as $20.47 per 748 gallons once they pass a threshold, but the council declined to vote on the measure.
Council members were divided on approving an independent audit of the department.
Mary Mulhern and Yvonne Yolie Capin expressed doubt over its cost and necessity after Mayor Pam Iorio announced a task force Tuesday to look into the issue after the city got nearly 500 customer complaints in a month.
Chairman Thomas Scott, who introduced the idea, argued an out-of-house investigation was essential "to lend credibility to the city government." Council member Curtis Stokes agreed.
The council requested a quote for an audit by Feb. 17.
Caetano introduced a motion requiring the water department to charge users the average of their previous three bills if it cannot explain a contested bill. The council initially approved the measure, but later decided to delay a vote until Feb. 17, when they should know if it would affect the city's bond rating.
At the meeting, Daignault and Tampa water director Brad Baird said after inspecting 124 customer complaints, they maintain their stance: The high bills are due to a variety of factors, including homeowners' leaks, over watering, the tiered billing system and, in some instances, errors by the water department.
"As we have said repeatedly, there are multiple issues as we go out and there investigate each individual's property," Daignault said. "There is not one cause that has affected everyone. They are all totally different."
But some members were not satisfied. Mulhern disagreed that inspecting every complaint was an effective solution, and requested complete data on high bills to identify any patterns.
"This is not my job, and this is not any of our jobs to fix this," Mulhern told Daignault and Baird. "You need to quit blaming the customer and you need to figure out what is going wrong in your department."
Jack Nicas can be reached at (813) 226-3401 or email@example.com.