Low- and moderate-income families shouldn't have to forgo a drink of water in order to pay for a trip to the doctor. But those are the decisions confronting some west Pasco retirees who testified before for the Public Service Commission Tuesday. The PSC is expected to rule in February on an appeal to a previously approved $2.6 million rate increase for the privately-owned Aqua Utilities, which serves Jasmine Lakes and Palm Terrace Gardens in west Pasco and the Zephyr Shores mobile home park in east Pasco.
The Florida Office of Public Counsel cited a half-dozen reasonable arguments in its challenge to the increase including poor service and inflated expenses. But, the most compelling appeal came from the residents of those neighborhoods who simply can't afford higher water and sewer bills. Aqua's rates already are more than double what Pasco County Utilities charges. If the appeal is denied, customers in Zephyr Shores will see their monthly sewer bill double to $95 while water bills in Jasmine Lakes will more than triple to $66 monthly.
"Where do you propose we get that money? We can't afford medicine,'' said 64-year-old Jeanie Girdner who testified the she can't pay for a flu shot, forgoes a mammogram exam unless a medical office is running a special and sets a timer in the shower to ensure she doesn't run up the water bill. "We can't afford you. So, what do we do, go without water?''
The utility, with 23,500 customers in Florida, originally sought a $4 million rate increase to offset what it valued as $11 million worth of capital improvements. The PSC knocked down the increase to $2.6 million, but the Florida Public Counsel argued Tuesday that all but $312,000 should be eliminated.
Even if the utility can rationalize its capital expenses, the PSC should not willingly assign a disproportionate share to customers who will not benefit. State Rep. John Legg, one of three elected officials to object to the increase, correctly called it the reversal of Robin Hood with the poor neighborhoods of Pasco subsidizing the cost of water and sewer improvements for other Aqua customers in the state.
Most of the homes in Palm Terrace Gardens and Jasmine Lakes Estates are modest, two-bedroom homes built in the early 1970s and marketed to northern retirees. The neighborhoods are now a mix of working-class families and retirees and one speaker estimated as many as 200 of the 1,200 homes in Palm Terrace are vacant. Another testified that real estate agents said potential buyers are not interested in the 16 homes for sale in the Zephyr Shores mobile home park, because of the high water and sewer costs charged by Aqua.
The PSC should reconsider its previous approval of the rate increase. The company is allowed to receive a reasonable return on its investment, but it should not be permitted to exacerbate a downtrodden real estate market. And, people of modest means shouldn't be required to pay exorbitant prices for the essential public necessities of water and sewer service just so a private company can remit bigger dividends to its stock holders.