ZEPHYRHILLS — Sterling Heights RV Resort manager Carol Ciallella-Felten had but one request for the City Council Monday night: reconsider how the city charges for utility fees at parks like the one she runs.
Her presentation was brief but packed a wallop. Her request was granted at least temporarily.
"I'm just asking you to sort of reconsider in a way because this is really hard on us," she told council members.
At issue isn't that the rate has increased per se, just how it's figured. But to the shock of mobile home park managers and residents, that billing process is boosting some annual bills by thousands of dollars.
Since January, 15 mobile home parks that have "master meters" rather than individual meters on each lot have been paying a base rate instead of a per unit charge. Parks outside the city limits like Sterling Heights are charged $19.25 per lot. Parks inside the city are charged $14.10.
The base rate change means that the parks are being billed for each of the lots even if they are vacant. Now that seasonal residents are gone, park managers are starting to really feel the effects.
Ciallella-Felten said her 70-lot park's monthly bill is about $1,805 with $1,347 the base rate, and consumption being the remainder. Its annual base rate skyrocketed from $5,082 to $16,700.
"When this came through, this was pretty devastating to us," Ciallella-Felten told City Council.
Blame the bleeding hearts of a council past.
In 1991, the City Council decided to give such RV parks a break on the base rates during the out-of-season months, said City Manager Steve Spina. If a park had 30 occupied lots during the winter season, they would be billed for those 30. If only half were occupied in the summer, they would pay for those 15. The problem came because the city couldn't tell who came back and when, and they couldn't properly adjust the bill, Spina said.
Enter utilities director David Henderson, who in May recommended the council implement the base rate as it was originally written without cutting the RV parks a break. The City Council unanimously voted in favor of the measure and the new billing began in January. He says revenue wasn't the issue. Rather, it was about bringing the parks into compliance and being consistent.
Henderson says the city still has to maintain infrastructure on the properties, as well as go out and read meters and pick up waste, so there is a cost associated with those things year round.
Then a new problem surfaced after the council vote: The city inadvertently failed to let the communities know they needed to brace themselves for bigger bills.
"We dropped the ball," Spina said Monday for the second time publicly this month.
That lack of notification drew a lot of loud criticism from those mobile home residents and managers at the April 11 City Council meeting. They also weren't happy with the rates, naturally. Spina told them at that meeting he would gather information about what parks are paying and see how the county handles the same situation.
He learned that the county charges on master meter accounts by the size of the meter installed regardless of the number of lots or units on the property. The rate does not change from season to season no matter how many lots are occupied, he said.
When looking at the numbers of what mobile home parks were charged before the new base rate billing went into effect, Spina said, staff realized it doesn't seem fair.
For example, Water Edge Mobile Park, a 211-lot community, used to pay $29,000 annually and now pays $48,741. Sleepy Hollow Mobile Estates Unit I used to pay $1,015 and now pays $18,104 for its 107 lots. One community, Emerald Point RV Resort, actually had a $508 bill reduction.
After the information was presented by Spina and Ciallella-Felten, the City Council told city staff to temporarily shelve the new billing procedures until it can come up with a better plan. A formal vote wasn't taken.
Spina on Tuesday asked the company doing a utility rate study to also research the master-meter issue and help the city to come up with a "more equitable solution."
Until then, Spina said, the heart-stopping bills will cease.