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At this rate, it's bad business for both

Somehow, all at the same time, Mary Tigiris was:

(1) Spoon-feeding cereal and fruit to 6-month-old Derek.

(2) Settling a fight over Hula Hoop rights by giving each side five minutes, measured on the microwave clock.

(3) Fixing spaghetti for everyone's lunch.

(4) Bending my ear, but good.

Everybody in the house called Mary Tigiris yia-yia, Greek for grandmother, and after a few minutes I wanted to, too.

She is a natural for the title. Not only has she raised eight children of her own, and a variety of foster kids, but she now takes care of other people's kids in her home.

There was a time when Mary Tigiris' line of work was called "babysitting."

Today, in more complicated times, it is called "family day care" and is regulated by the state and many counties, too. You can keep up to five kids in your home for money. More than 7,000 people in Florida are licensed or registered to do it.

Mary Tigiris is vice president of the state home day-care association, and she is worried.

The state is considering whether people like her should have to pay commercial rates, instead of residential rates, to the electric and telephone companies.

Commercial rates!

Like she's running a secret 7-Eleven or something out of her Carrollwood home. Or a smelting plant. Or maybe she's handling Time Inc.'s customer-service calls on the sly.

But it is not a joke. Just ask Kathleen Newman, the Bradenton woman whose case started this fight.

Newman has been keeping kids in her home for 13 years. Last year, she says, workers were tearing up the road outside and it was a big confusing mess. So that no one would miss her driveway, she put up a small sign with 2- or 3-inch letters: Newman Family Day Care.

All of a sudden, Florida Power & Light Co. of Miami told her she had to start paying commercial rates, which for her was roughly an extra $10 a month. She had to cough up an extra deposit of $215.

To Newman, it made no sense. "Why should we have to pay commercial rates for the other 118 hours a week that kids aren't here?" she asks.

Besides, if making money in the home is a crime, why stop at day care?

What about the Avon person?

The Fuller Brush people?

Kids who mow lawns?

Tupperware party-throwers?

How about you? Did you happen to do any work at home last night? Does that mean you're using your house for commercial purposes?

Newman took her case to the Florida Public Service Commission, where the staff decided this was a "gray area." Never mind that every other home day-care operator they found in FP&L's area was getting charged residential rates.

The PSC took its first whack at this issue Feb. 15. Newman got her $215 deposit back, but she has to stay on commercial rates while the PSC decides on a statewide policy.

Another hearing is scheduled for April. The bureaucracy marches on.

I asked some of the big utilities in the Tampa Bay area where they stand.

"A small family day-care operation, with a few kids, we wouldn't consider that a commercial rate," a Florida Power spokesman said.

TECO said its small-commercial and residential rates are almost identical, and it wouldn't be worth the trouble to change them.

GTE said if a home is primarily used as a home, then residential rates apply. "If you suddenly order a half-dozen lines for your home, we might take a look at that," a spokesman said.

Makes sense.

Still, it all could change if the state says utilities can charge commercial rates _ or, even that they must do it. So Mary Tigiris is not unreasonable to be worried. She says this would be one more reason for operators to go "underground" and evade even the minimal safety and training standards that exist.

I know we need to make sure people aren't cheating the utility companies.

But I would hope we could do it without squeezing a few more bucks out of the babysitters.