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Residents threaten to move over utility fees

Ask 67-year-old James Repanti about the fees and taxes in Brooksville, and he will tell you that they are as bothersome as a motorist who doesn't have the correct change on the New York State Thruway.

"You have to pay them," said Repanti, a transplanted New Yorker who once worked on the longest toll superhighway system in the United States. "There are two things you got to do in life: breathe and pay taxes."

So when Repanti, who collects Social Security and retirement benefits, rifled through his mail three weeks ago and found that the monthly cost of water service at his home on Fort Dade Avenue had risen to $20.31, there was no hiding his exasperation. He was paying $16 for water service about two months ago.

Since November, when Brooksville residents began forking over more money to shower and flush the toilet, City Hall has been the target of some harsh words.

Granted, only a small minority of Brooksville's roughly 6,000 utility customers has called the city's customer service line _ some wondering whether an error had been made on their bills. But city officials have been buttonholed by a number of residents upset about increases in their water, sewer and energy bills.

Residents who use less than 2,400 gallons of water per month pay about $1 more for service now, while larger water users, those who consume more than 8,000 gallons of water, are now charged a premium. Sewer rates are based on the amount of water used.

In addition, city residents have seen a 10 percent public service tax placed on a portion of their energy bills. The tax also applies to the sale of natural gas inside the city limits. The City Council adopted the tax to help with the city's tight finances.

City Manager Richard Anderson said he didn't know how many people called or wrote to voice their displeasure over the increases, but records show the city has received at least six letters from taxpayers in the past two months.

"Initially, we received a large number of inquiries," Anderson said. "I have had people call up and say, "How come my bill is high?' A lot of them wanted explanations."

The short answer is that for the past few years, the city had delayed increasing water and sewer rates, even though operating costs had risen and improvements were being made to the system, city officials said.

But that explanation doesn't wear well with Repanti, who said the city's water service is not that great.

"I can't drink the water anyway. There is too much calcium in it," he said. "But what are you going to do? You are always a loser, and you will never be a winner."

Anderson acknowledges that selling city residents on the increases has been no easy chore, though he said an explanation usually helps.

"Nobody favors a rate increase, but most people that have questioned the necessity now understand why," he said. "That does not mean they are happy with it."

The rate increases have become enough of a burden that some residents say they might leave the city, particularly if rates continue to go up.

Jim Petrone, manager of Wilkerson Auto, believes that the higher rates threaten the viability of some businesses.

"I don't think the city thought this one through," Petrone said. "They are crippling us."

Wilkerson Auto, which sits south of downtown at the junction of Ponce de Leon Boulevard and S Broad Street, has been open since 1966. Now the business could fold, Petrone said, because the recently imposed public service tax has forced Wilkerson to charge more for propane gas, and he can't compete with businesses outside the city at the higher price.

"The law is totally unfair," he said. "The county has not applied the tax, but the city has. It puts us at a real disadvantage."

To Petrone, the message the City Council has sent to an old business like the one he manages is that it can't do business in Brooksville.

"It's irritating not being competitive," said Petrone, pointing south down U.S. 41 to where businesses outside the city do not have to deal with the public service tax. "People are going to try to get cheaper prices. For electric and water and sewer, you can't shop around for the best price _ but for propane you can."

Under the law, businesses are taxed 10 percent on the retail sale of propane. That means Petrone would have to charge customers $11 for gas he would normally sell for $10. If he chooses not to raise his price, the business would receive $9 for every $10 sale.

"At $9, I don't make money to sustain the business," said Petrone, who lives outside the city.

Anderson said he was aware that the tax has placed some businesses in a bind.

"I can't say I don't understand why they are upset," he said.

Michael Ponds isn't happy, either.

Over the past two years, his average water consumption of 18,000 gallons a billing cycle was mostly because he waters his lawn. At that time, he was happy to pay between $60 and $65 a month.

When the new rates began in November, Ponds saw a 100 percent increase in his water bill because of the higher rates for those who use the most water. He says it might force him to leave the city.

On top of that, Ponds said, his latest electric bill was $98.23 because of the public service tax.

"I would like to know why my water bill would be 30 percent higher than my power bill. I don't use much more water," said Ponds, a 28-year-old financial adviser who is a partner in a construction company in Lake County.

Ponds said that he will probably move because property taxes in Brooksville are among the highest in Florida for a city its size and utility fees are too extreme.

"I love Brooksville," said Ponds, who lives on Moonlight Lane. "It's a great place area-wise. But cost-wise, for what we are paying, we should be treated like we are living in Tampa or St. Pete with more functions. We are paying a premium to live in a place with fewer services."

Josh Brown, 28, who lives on Sunset Drive, agreed.

He said his family expects to pay $40 to $50 more a month because of the higher fees and the public service tax.

"Nobody is happy with it," Brown said.

"My bill has gone up quite a bit. I am still able to make ends meet at the end of the month. It is not like it's going to bankrupt me, but there are a lot of people on fixed incomes that it affects."

Because many of those people might have to scrape together more to pay their bills, Brown said, his concern is more than just dollars and cents.

"My concern is that if we keep raising taxes, we will make the city a less desirable place to live," said Brown, who is a software developer for Hernando County and owner of Innovative Data Solutions.

"They are going to drive people out of the city, includeding myself. Then what would you have left? A city that no one wants to live in."

Brown holds out some hope that the higher utility fees and taxes might lead to a lower property tax rate for city residents.

But he said he fears that the property tax rate, which has remained steady for a number of years, may be the council's next target.

Council members have been studying ways to reduce the city's dependence on property taxes. They have made no promises, though.

"It's just very frustrating," Brown said.

_ Duane Bourne can be reached at (352) 754-6114. Send e-mail to dbournesptimes.com.

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