TAMPA — A debate is brewing between the city's water department and dozens of residents demanding to know why their water bills skyrocketed.
After inspecting about a dozen complaints last week, the city said Tuesday that leaks or over-watering caused the high bills, and homeowners are responsible for at least a portion of the costs.
"Every single one we've investigated so far show leaks of all kinds on private property," said water department spokesman Elias Franco. "There is no indication whatsoever" the city is at fault for the high bills.
But some of those homeowners are not convinced. And now a new crop of even higher bills has shown up in New Tampa.
"We didn't all just spring leaks in December," said Greg Frick of Tampa Palms, where one resident was billed over the past two months for using 180,000 gallons — two years' worth of water for the average family.
"Logic would tell you that's not right," Frick said.
Tampa water officials will formally address the media on the issue today and are expected to present the Tampa City Council a report on the bills Thursday.
They and several other water managers from the region contend both leaks and billing complaints are common. Moreover, Franco said, the complaints are more geographically dispersed than they might seem.
Colleen Quinn-Adams said she and 16 Dana Shores neighbors banded together last month when they realized each had spikes in their bills. The group complained to the city, which inspected many of the homes. Those remaining are scheduled for inspection this week.
Franco said inspectors found each home's meter was functioning properly. "Our investigations have found that the water they were billed for passed through their meter," he said.
Usage typically spiked because of leaking irrigation systems, Franco said, and in a few cases, overwatering. Inspectors attached monitoring systems to the meters of one or two homes where the investigations were inconclusive, he said. If residents prove they repaired the leaks, Franco said, their excess usage will be billed at a lowest rate.
Tampa water rates are tiered progressively, so as residents use more water, they are charged more per gallon.
Quinn-Adams does not believe a broken sprinkler head in her yard used an extra 20,000 gallons in November and December.
"It's not true," she said. "While there may be leaks on some of our properties … that definitely does not account for a $900 water bill," which one of her neighbors received last month.
Two other neighbors, 85-year-old couple Ralph and Dolores Eubanks, are also skeptical two broken sprinkler heads cost them nearly $1,000 in water bills since October, after paying about $50 per month for decades.
"There's something wrong there," she said. "They blame everything on everyone else."
Several residents said there must be a problem with the city's water meters or billing system because complaints have been so close in time and space, including such neighborhoods as Dana Shores, Pelican Island, Tampa Palms and Hunter's Green.
Franco maintains complaints are not clustered enough to present a pattern. About 20 of the roughly 275 homes in Dana Shores, for instance, complained.
Though he admitted the past two weeks have brought the most complaints he can remember in such a short period of time, Franco blames media coverage rather than irregular meter readings.
"As people watch (the coverage) and look at their bills, they're taking the opportunity to question them," he said. "So that wave has picked up."
And the weekend brought a new wave from New Tampa.
In Tampa Palms, Michael O'Malley owes the city $2,600 for using 180,000 gallons of water over the past two months.
But after hiring a plumber to review his pipes, O'Malley is confident his bill is a city problem.
"I have paperwork showing our irrigation has no issues. We did the blue dye in toilets, and there's no leak there," he said. "We've covered all our bases to prove that something's obviously fishy here."
Michael Tucker of Hunter's Green owes $2,750 for more than 200,000 gallons in two months — about the volume of 10 large swimming pools.
"I have no explanation," said Tucker, who expects a city inspector this week. "I would think you would see something in the yard or house that would indicate such a huge leak, but you don't."
Franco said even a leak of more than 100,000 gallons over two months could go undetected, and two water officials from other agencies agreed.
Rebecca Garland, water division director for the Hillsborough County public utilities department, said Tampa's sandy soil could absorb that large of a leak.
"It's not unusual to have tens of thousands of gallons seep into the earth," she said. "And your garden hose can output thousands of gallons in a short time."
Greg Turman, Clearwater's water production coordinator, said a leak is possible, but also noted new technology presents opportunity for human error. In Tampa, workers manually read meters and file results via a handheld device, Franco said.
"One hundred thousand gallons? It'd have to be a pretty big leak, but it is possible," he said. "Someone also could have made a mistake setting up a couple of customers, and having issues with software is not common … They're both possible."
Jack Nicas can be reached at (813) 226-3401 or email@example.com.