TAMPA — Reacting to a flood of complaints about unusually high water bills, a review of the water department reported Thursday what some officials have contended all along — that the city alone is not at fault.
The internal review, made to the Tampa City Council, quickly was met with criticism.
"Somehow bills were getting sent out in high numbers that were elevated, and we still don't know why," said council member Mary Mulhern. "I think you know what the problem is, and I don't know why you can't just tell us what the problem is, and the next administration will have to fix it."
She said the report was heavy on information but thin on explanations. The water department, she said, still has not pinpointed why in recent months some residents received water bills three, five and 10 times above normal.
The report council members received Thursday didn't address specific customer cases.
Instead, a task force formed by Mayor Pam Iorio, who leaves office at the end of the month, outlined contributing factors and listed recommendations for improving procedures.
The task force pointed out that it was unseasonably cold and dry from September through December. At the same time, city officials voted to relax drought restrictions and allow lawn watering two days a week.
That higher water usage caused some customer consumption to be pushed to levels that triggered higher billing rates for heavy users, said chief of staff Darrell Smith.
The review didn't reveal any systemic issues with the water department's billing process. However, some water meters were not being read within the two-month billing cycle outlined by city policy, which could cause those residents to be charged for more water than they actually consumed in that period.
Those answers didn't satisfy customer Scott Bohnsack.
The bill he received for rental property he owns off Waters Avenue near Dale Mabry Highway quadrupled in October and November from the usual $250.
Bohnsack said in an interview after the meeting that the water department told him his meter had caused inaccurate readings and needed to be replaced. But he thinks the problem isn't about the equipment.
"I truthfully don't think people are actually reading the damn things," he said.
Bohnsack said the city can't be trusted to dig into its own issues to pinpoint what really caused the skyrocketing bills.
"It seems as though they're ignoring it," he said. "There is something that just does not add up."
The task force's list of recommendations for improving the department includes moving to a system where meters are read monthly instead of every other month. The city hopes to solicit proposals from companies wishing to implement the new policy but hasn't determined how much more it would cost.
The task force also recommended redesigning water bills so they're easier to read. And it suggested the city update some policies and procedures, including better customer service training, rotating meter reading routes and relocating meters that are difficult to access.
Council members said they would review the report and discuss the issue at next week's meeting.
Tia Mitchell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3405.