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Wednesday, May 23, 2018
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Fla. Senate bill takes on water utilities

Water customers could petition the state’s Public Service Commission to shut down private, for-profit water and sewer utilities if a new bill sponsored by Pasco state Sen. Wilton Simpson wins approval in the Florida Legislature this session.

Simpson, R-Trilby, sponsored the Consumer Water Protection Act in October but said he has rewritten the bill, which is slated to go before the Senate Communications, Energy, and Public Utilities committee Tuesday.

“I wanted to file a bill to put the private utilities on notice,” Simpson said. “I want this to become law — it’s important that it does.”

Under the new provisions, the PSC could cancel a utility company’s certificate of authorization to operate a water or sewer system if 65 percent of its customers sign a petition. If the utility cannot prove it’s operating in the public interest, the PSC could place the system in receivership until it’s sold to another operator.

“This will give our consumers an option to get away from these utilities,” Simpson said. “It sets up a process to make sure the customers get a voice.”

The bill also allows the commission to issue fines and deny rate increases for utilities that don’t meet certain standards related to the taste, color, odor and corrosiveness of drinking water.

“It puts in the secondary water quality standards,” Simpson said. “It’s carefully worded, but it gives the PSC authority to deny rate cases.”

The commission approved a 20 percent rate increase for Utilities Inc. in November even though busloads of residents from New Port Richey’s Summertree neighborhood traveled to Tallahassee and testified for 10 hours about the poor quality of the drinking water.

The Altamonte Springs-based private utility, which provides service to 22 systems in five Florida counties, had asked for a 36 percent rate hike. The average Utilities Inc. customer in Pasco County pays about $85 a month for water and sewer service.

“It’s extraordinarily unfair to utility customers when private water companies are charging double the rates of government-owned utilities,” Simpson said.

An earlier version of the bill would have made it illegal for private companies to charge higher water and sewer rates than government-owned utilities in the same county. “I really liked the language in the earlier version, but considering what we’re asking the PSC to do, we wanted to be sure it’s something that is legal and can be enforced,” Simpson said.

Ann Marie Ryan, a member of the Summertree Water Alliance, said the homeowners’ group supports the bill but worries that the 65 percent threshold is too high for communities with a large number of seasonal residents.

Alliance members sent more than 500 letters to the PSC opposing the rate hike before the November hearing. “It will be very difficult to get 65 percent,” she said. But they still support Simpson’s bill, and several members will travel to Tallahassee this week to testify at the committee hearing.

“You have no idea how grateful we are to have him working for us,” Ryan said.

Should legislation pass that committee, the bill would proceed to the community affairs committee, chaired by Simpson, and then to the full Senate.

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