TAMPA — In response to a deluge of water bill complaints, the City Council voted unanimously Thursday to suspend the two highest water rates.
But the move addresses how water gets billed in the future — not why some bills have skyrocketed in recent months.
And despite the unanimous support, some council members were skeptical of the effect.
"This may help a little bit, but it is definitely not a solution," Mary Mulhern said. The high bills show "a systemic problem."
Mayor Pam Iorio and water officials had urged council members to suspend the highest rates. Public works administrator Steve Daignault hoped the change would "encourage folks that we're doing the right things to try to keep their bills where they should be."
Tampa water rates are tiered. As residents use more water, they pay more per gallon. Under the existing plan, the rate doubles after about 56,000 gallons and triples after about 75,000. Beginning in March, users will pay a flat rate per gallon after about 35,000 gallons. In a drought, the council can reinstate the rates to encourage conservation.
New data show 7,753 of city customers, or 6.3 percent, saw their water usage at least double in November and December, which Daignault said is in line with years past. But he said it is unclear if historic information also is in line with the 525 customers whose meters showed a tenfold or more increase.
Regardless of whether there has been an irregular jump in high water bills, more than 700 calls a day come in to the water department complaining about bills, Daignault said. The mayor recently assembled a task force to investigate.
Water officials have maintained the high bills stem from an array of problems: over watering, leaks and, in some instances, billing or meter-reading errors.
But recently a new theory has gained momentum.
Iorio speculated this week that some meter readers only estimated customers' usage for months, concealing leaks or higher consumption. Then, when the meters were finally read, that higher usage showed up on one bill.
"This is a theory right now," Iorio said, "but it's one we feel has some plausibility to it."
Some council members on Thursday put their own interpretations on the theory.
Charlie Miranda said bills began to escalate after meter readers got new bosses in July.
The city's revenue and finance department used to oversee meter reading and billing until the water department took over those functions.
"Why did it change only when the water department took it over?" Miranda asked. "There could be many years of problems that were never detected and now that (the water department has) taken over, the problem has come to surface."
Elias Franco, a water department manager, said he has installed new supervisors and changed some practices for the city's meter readers. But he said has not found evidence meter readers were estimating water consumption when they were not supposed to be.
"Did I see some things that were question marks? Sure," he said. "But I don't jump to conclusions. I haven't seen anything that supports the theory."
Meters are supposed to be read every other month, with usage estimated for off-months. The city is now working to read meters monthly.
Council Chairman Thomas Scott has pushed for an independent audit.
But the council learned from its attorney Thursday that its authority to initiate a contract for an audit is limited. Even if the council did, bidding for the work would take 45 to 60 days.
Members postponed a decision until March 17, when the mayor's task force report is due.
Mulhern speculated the report could reveal a "perfect storm" of problems: faulty meters, poor meter reading, billing errors.
Daignault said all are part of the inquiry.
"We are looking at everything," he said. "And when we have something, if we ever have something, we'll certainly make that available."
Jack Nicas can be reached at (813) 226-3401 or [email protected]