NEW PORT RICHEY — After spending thousands of dollars investigating complaints, Pasco County utilities staff members say they still have no idea why 363 customers received seemingly inflated water bills last year.
Bruce Kennedy, assistant county administrator for utilities, told Pasco commissioners Tuesday that a 10-month audit conducted by the inspector general’s arm of the circuit court clerk and county comptroller found no problems with the 170 water meters that were inspected.
“The equipment is accurate,” Kennedy said, adding that 95 percent of the water meters met standards set by the American Water Works Association. The remaining five percent, he said, were under-registering water usage.
“We did discover that our meter readers missed some routes last year,” said Kennedy. “But those customers were billed double the following month.”
Nevertheless, the inspector general did find that 317 customers had been overcharged.
“My normal water bill is $25 a month,” said Ramona Nelson of Port Richey. “But last year I was billed $562.63 for one month. I’d have to run my water for 16 days, 24 hours a day to use that much.”
Another month Nelson received a bill for $149.19. “And I was out of town that month. The water was shut off,” she said.
While the county did offer Nelson a $399.77 credit, she said that’s not good enough.
“I was still overcharged $368,” she said. “I’m a retiree on a fixed income and can’t afford to pay these bills.”
Gene Foy and Louise Gritmon of New Port Richey were equally incensed after receiving a $3,386 water bill for using 614,000 gallons of water over an 18-day period last summer.
“That’s enough water to fill 19 railroad tanker cars,” Foy told commissioners. “This is absurd.”
Foy said their typical water bill is $40.77 a month. When he complained to Pasco County utilities employees, he was told he most likely had a leak. But the contractors he hired found no leaks.
Commissioners expressed frustration with the lack of a resolution to the problem.
“At this point, we’ve already spent more than $3,000 in staff time,” said Commissioner Mike Wells Jr.
Commissioner Jack Mariano made a motion to “wipe these bills clean.” But County Attorney Jeffrey Steinsnyder said the county’s bond covenant won’t allow the county to provide customers with free service.
“Then I’d like to see us take all the bills down to what a normal bill should be,” said Mariano.
Steinsnyder said doing even that much will require amending the county’s water ordinance.
Kennedy suggested the commission charge the customers Tampa Bay Water’s wholesale rate of $2.55 per 1,000 gallons, a 50 percent reduction, once the ordinance is amended.
In the meantime, Mariano advised the county’s utilities department to change how it handles customers’ complaints.
“You can’t say our employees didn’t make mistakes,” he said. “Someone needs to be accountable. If you need to pay customer service people more to get the job done, do it.”