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Tampa officials expand investigation into sticker-shock water bills

TAMPA — It could take two months to track down all the reasons behind a recent rash of stunningly high water bills, but city officials promised Thursday not to cut off service while they and customers work through the problems.

"Nobody's water is going to be shut off," Tampa public works administrator Steve Daignault told City Council members.

To the contrary, city officials plan to double the number of employees, from two to four, who will investigate unexpectedly high water bills that have topped four figures for some homeowners.

Moreover, officials said they will adjust the balances of customers who find and fix leaks that contribute to excessive bills. And they'll provide payment plans for residents who still end up with a bill that's more than they can pay in one bite.

Council members welcomed that cooperation, but several were skeptical of the explanations offered for the bills.

"It just defies logic," council member Mary Mulhern said. "My common sense tells me there's something wrong in the measurement."

But city utility officials maintained that if there's one thing they're sure of, it's that the water meters are accurate.

"I'm 100 percent confident that these meter readings are right," water department director Brad Baird told council members.

Instead, he said up to two dozen different factors could be at work in the unusually high bills turning up in Dana Shores, New Tampa and the Lake Magdalene and Lake Ellen area.

In 87 percent of the cases city officials have investigated, there has been a leak at the house, often in the lawn sprinkler system. Plus, unlike a year ago, customers can and often do irrigate twice a week. Fall was drier than normal, leading to more watering, while December and January had three freezes that caused water lines to crack and leak.

Finally, to encourage conservation, the city in the spring dramatically raised surcharges for customers who use the largest amounts of water.

Before May, a customer with an inside leak might have seen a $1,000 bill under the old rates. Now that same leak could result in a bill twice as high, officials said.

"What we find, in these three neighborhoods, is each person had a different problem and we needed to investigate it on a case-by-case basis," Baird said.

Several residents, however, told the council they have yet to receive an explanation that makes sense to them.

"I cannot fathom that I have a leaky toilet or a leaky anything that is causing me to use 183,000 gallons of water," said Barb O'Malley, a Tampa Palms resident with a $2,500 bill.

She said her irrigation company checked and found no problem.

Katherine Inglis, who lives in the Reserve in Tampa Palms, said she typically gets bills in the $150 to $200 range.

But her bill jumped to $505 in November, dropped to $169 in December and topped $1,043 in January.

"I'm on a budget, on a fixed income, and I can't afford thousand-dollar water bills," Inglis said. "I think the water department needs to accept some responsibility that something's wrong."

And new complaints continue.

Tampa lawyer Andrew Mirabole said he got a bill in December that was nearly 60 times as high as high as his previous bill.

After using less than 1,000 gallons of water in September and October at his law firm on Armenia Avenue, Mirabole was billed for using nearly 600,000 gallons for November and December.

His combined water and waste water charges topped $8,000.

On Jan. 3, the water department told Mirabole to ignore the bill until an inspector came to his business, he said.

But no one ever came, and on Wednesday he received another bill for $9,100, including a $460 late charge.

Despite the city's findings that outside leaks are common in such cases, Mirabole said that doesn't explain it. He does not have outside water at his firm, he said — just two toilets and a sink.

Tampa officials expand investigation into sticker-shock water bills 01/20/11 [Last modified: Friday, January 21, 2011 7:28am]

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