Eight years after Pasco County renewed efforts to take private utilities into public ownership, customers of Aloha Utilities in southwest Pasco are closer to seeing light at the end of the tunnel and clear water pouring from the taps.
The public cooperative, Florida Governmental Utility Authority, reached a $90.5-million deal to buy Aloha, start serving its 25,000 customers and put an end to complaints of dark, smelly water coming from customers' faucets. Pasco joined the cooperative in February in anticipation of the agency negotiating a purchase of Aloha.
Details haven't been shared yet with Pasco government officials and certainly due diligence is required. The price is astounding considering in 2000 the county estimated a $100-million price tag to buy all 33 of the private utilities in the Pasco. At that time, Aloha did not respond to Pasco's invitation to list an asking price for the company.
If an appraisal justifies the sale price and the base of rate-payers can afford a reasonable monthly payment for service and debt reduction, then closing the sale makes sense. Contrarily, asking customers to foot the bill for an exorbitant windfall for a company short on service but long on excuses is unfair to the people who've tolerated Aloha's stalling tactics for more than a dozen years.
Under the new deal, the public utility would spend $14-million improving water service for customers by tapping into county water lines at four locations and cutting back use of two Aloha wells frequently blamed for the dark water. There are other benefits as well including reduced overhead. Unlike Aloha, the Florida Governmental Utility Authority is not in business to turn a profit. It pays no PSC regulatory fees and its nonprofit status means its equipment and buildings are not taxed.
Most important, the sale establishes accountability for utility operations at the local level, something long missing in this saga because Aloha answers to the Tallahassee-based Public Service Commission.
Customers have complained of discolored water smelling like rotten eggs that has ruined laundry, made bathing uncomfortable and consumption impossible. The water's high hydrogen sulfide content is blamed for the odor and the chemical reaction with copper piping for the discoloration. Despite a more than 2-year-old PSC order to make multimillion-dollar capital improvements, the situation has remained status quo.
Public patience could be rewarded within three months if the deal is consummated. It is about time. Customers have endured excuses and foot-dragging for far too long.