ZEPHYRHILLS — City Manager Steve Spina admitted that city staffers "dropped the ball" when they didn't inform mobile home park residents of a change in their utility base rate fees.
"That was a staff mistake, and I apologize for it," Spina told City Council members at their regular meeting Monday evening. "We definitely dropped the ball."
Since January, residents of about 15 mobile home parks have been paying base rate fees of $19.25 per lot instead of per unit. That means residents are required to pay for lots even if they are not occupied.
Joe Brown, president of Sleepy Hollow Mobile Estates, told the council that his park has 90 units in the winter months. But when seasonal residents leave for their northern homes in the summer, the number of occupied units dwindles to 10.
"Nobody wants to pay for something they're not using," said Chris Bill, a resident of Magnolia Trace RV Park.
Magnolia Trace has 10 empty lots and expects that about five more will be vacant by the end of April. That's a monthly total of $288.75 that residents will be paying "for nothing," Bill and fellow resident Howard Smith wrote in an April 6 letter to Spina.
"That's a lot of money to just throw down the drain," they said.
The rate change stems from a city ordinance that the council decided last May to enforce.
The ordinance states that individual lots in mobile home parks and individual units of hotels, motels and apartments shall be charged base rates for utilities in addition to any charge for actual use.
In 1991, the City Council decided to charge mobile home parks base rates only for occupied units. If a park had 30 lots, for example, and all 30 were occupied in the winter but only 15 were occupied in the summer, then the park would pay base rates for 30 units in the winter and only 15 in the summer.
However, the city couldn't regulate who came back in the summer, Spina said later, and city employees still had to read meters and pick up trash in some parks no matter how many units were occupied.
So last May, based on a recommendation from utilities director David Henderson, the council voted to implement the ordinance as it was originally written. At that time, council member Lance Smith said he wanted those affected by the change to be alerted in advance. But the rate change took effect in January without park residents being told.
"Why weren't we notified?" Howard Smith shouted from his seat during the council meeting.
At the meeting, Spina said "a number of parks" have called city staffers regarding the issue. He apologized to residents and the council, saying there was no excuse.
"We had a real lack of communication within our own department," he said later.
In their letter, Chris Bill and Howard Smith said that utility base rates should only apply to lots in a park that are occupied by an RV unit, even if the unit is vacant. Lots that are not occupied by an RV unit should not be charged a utility base rate fee. They said the mobile home park manager or owner should be responsible for informing the city when there is a change in occupancy at a park, and the city should periodically inspect parks and charge a penalty for each unreported unit.
By charging base rates this way, they said, the city would gain additional income from seasonal residents, and parks would not have to pay for utilities they don't use in the off season.
"It's just common sense and fair to all parties involved," they wrote.
Spina said city staffers would gather information to determine the amount that each park is being charged. He said they would also look at other cities and Pasco County to see how they charge.
"What we have to do is to find a way to make this as equitable as possible," he said.