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St. Pete Beach hotel owner wants compensation from Progress Energy after fires

ST. PETE BEACH — Robert Czyszczon and his family have run the Plaza Beach Hotel for 22 years, drawing snowbirds to their 39-room, beachside resort with its low-key charm.

But now two electrical fires in 10 months, including one last week, are pitting this small family operation against one of Florida's most powerful corporations — Progress Energy.

He is pressing the utility for a new transformer and to compensate the hotel for thousands of dollars in losses caused by the fires. But an obscure state provision in the utility's service agreement is hampering his efforts and could prove futile in getting any compensation.

In March 2009, he said a Progress Energy lineman working on a transformer across the street sent too much power to the hotel at 4506 Gulf Blvd., causing fires in a couple of rooms and racking up $9,000 in damage.

Czyszczon (pronounced Sa-zahn) said the lineman didn't realize the hotel shared a transformer with the nearby Drunken Clam bar and an Exxon and admitted the error. The hotel's power line runs underground.

Suzanne Grant, Progress Energy spokeswoman, said the lineman was doing maintenance on a separate part, and did not confirm that he admitted fault.

Progress Energy rejected Czyszczon's claim for compensation, citing a PSC provision protecting the company from covering damage without proof that an employee acted recklessly or intentionally.

The provision protects the company from being liable for damage from "acts of God," like fallen trees, storms and errant squirrels.

It also extends to lightning strikes, which Progress Energy believes contributed to Friday's surge by damaging a piece of equipment on the transformer, Grant said.

Without the provision protecting Progress Energy, the utility would require higher insurance, leading to higher utility rates, she said.

Friday's incident reignited Czyszczon's frustration with Progress Energy.

About 1:45 a.m., some guests were jolted from sleep by noisy sparks from their air conditioning units.

"I thought some kind of jet engine had come through the roof and exploded on the floor," said Ron Yuken of Michigan, who evacuated his smoky room with his wife.

The fires melted outlets and plugs, scorched sections of the floor, and filled the air with smoke.

But it could have escalated into something much worse, said St. Pete Beach Fire Rescue Marshal Ernie Hand. Officials haven't determined what caused the transformer to surge.

If Progress Energy won't compensate him for the damage, Czyszczon wonders why the utility won't change the power flow that he says is dangerously ill-suited for his building.

He likens his situation to a renter with a faulty appliance. The landlord would replace it as a service to his tenant, he argued. His relationship with his power company should be the same, he said.

Czyszczon said he filed a complaint with the Public Service Commission on Monday, just as he did after last year's fire. But Kirsten Olsen, a PSC spokeswoman, said the regulatory agency's function is not to determine who's right or wrong.

Czyszczon would be better off taking the dispute to court, she said.

Bob Aasheim, a Progress Energy power quality engineer, said the malfunctions could be the result of poor preparation by the hotel because Czyszczon did not have a surge protector before last year's fire. Now it does have a surge protector, but Aasheim said he still thinks the hotel is not taking adequate precautions or installing the AC units correctly.

Czyszczon insists he has consulted several electricians who have told him that his hotel is not to blame, and that Friday's fire shows that the surge protector was not a factor last March. Aasheim and Czyszczon planned to meet at 1 p.m. Tuesday to talk it over.

He tallied up about $18,000 in losses from Friday's fire.

He doesn't know what his insurance will cover. Last year he absorbed the costs of repairs without filing an insurance claim.

"This year I'm livid," he said. "So this year I'm going after them.

St. Pete Beach hotel owner wants compensation from Progress Energy after fires 01/26/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 26, 2010 4:57pm]
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