1. Archive

For clarification on utility refunds, please read on

As a reporter, I'm used to getting some irate phone messages from the public. Most of the time, I don't mind.

I usually draw the line, however, with callers who don't leave their name or phone number. That's what I found on my voice mail when I got to work Wednesday morning.

"Miss Gilmore, why don't you get your facts straight?" barked the unknown caller. "I just spent the last 20 minutes on hold with the (state) Public Service Commission because of your article in the paper today. We don't have to call in order to get this refund from the water company. We automatically will get it when they make the decision. You scared the heck out of a lot of people."

There was a brief pause. Then, the man added: "Learn to do your job right."

While I didn't appreciate the caller's tone, he was right. Our story and headline Wednesday were wrong on two counts: First, refunds or discounts on rates will go to all customers, regardless of whether they contact the PSC; also, Wednesday was not the deadline for submitting comments.

The 30,000 Florida Water Service customers in Spring Hill who were over-billed by the utility are entitled to a refund, according to the PSC.

How and when customers get their money will be decided during a Dec. 15 public hearing in Tallahassee.

Until then, customers can write or fax comments to the PSC about how they would like their money refunded (paid in a lump sum with interest, or paid in installments over a period of years, for example).

"Customers should write and call until they get their refunds, period," said Mike Twomey, the lawyer who has represented Spring Hill.

Like the caller on my voice mail, dozens of readers were confused by Wednesday's article.

The errors set off a wave of panic among Florida Water customers and resulted in pandemonium. I know, because I spent most of the day fielding phone calls from readers.

I spent the rest of the day trying to get someone from the PSC on the phone to explain how this could have happened.

"We've just been inundated," said Robby Cunningham of the Public Service Commission, who added he received more than 100 faxes Wednesday. "And that doesn't include phone calls. We've heard from hundreds of people because they thought today was the deadline."

Dozens of people also called me to say they couldn't get through on the PSC's phone or fax lines. Cunningham assured me both were simply busy and had not been disconnected, as some callers suspected.

"We only have three fax lines, and the thing has been cooking," he said.

How this mess occurred is a matter of debate. But it does show the disastrous ripple effect that one bit of misinterpreted information can have.

One problem with Wednesday's story occurred when several people, including me and former Spring Hill Civic Association president Morty Miller, read a document that talked about a Wednesday deadline; the PSC confirmed the date when contacted by the Times. As it turns out, the Wednesday deadline was for parties involved in the original lawsuit against Florida Water to submit arguments.

Suffice it to say, there was a complete breakdown in communication among all parties involved.

There is a bright side, however.

"The good thing is we heard from a lot of people," Cunningham said. "We want to hear from people. But don't panic, there's still time."

Miller, who has spearheaded the five-year battle against Florida Water Services, was pleased with the results of Wednesday's blunder, which prompted dozens of customers to take action.

"It's about time we get the people here to wake up and do something," he said.

Florida Water customers can mail comments about whether they want refunds or future discounts to: Director, Division of Records and Reporting, Florida Public Service Commission, Docket No. 920199-WS, 2540 Shumard Oak Blvd., Tallahassee, FL 32399-0850. Faxes may be sent to (800) 511-0809.