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New water rates soak some communities

A new reclaimed water formula meant to encourage conservation more than triples the bills for some large communities used to a bountiful supply of cheap water.

By LOGAN D. MABE, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 21, 2002


Property managers at some of the area's largest master planned communities got a nasty surprise when they opened their reclaimed water bills this month.

"Heck, when this came in, it floored me," said Dan Ruskiewicz, property manager for Carrollwood Village, where bills for the village's three phases jumped by 300 to 500 percent. "I looked at that and almost had a heart attack."

The Hillsborough County Water Department began figuring bills using a new reclaimed water formula approved by the County Commission in April. Reclaimed water is sewer water that is treated and reused for irrigation. Most communities use it to water lawns and greenery in common areas.

Under the old rates, Carrollwood Village phase three would have had a bill of $301.73, Ruskiewicz said. The new bill: $1,584.85. Phase two's bill would have been $263.31, but jumped to $768.38. Phase one saw an increase from $235.16 to $1,172.74.

"To me this is outrageous, just outrageous," Ruskiewicz said. "That busted my whole year's (reclaimed water) budget. My whole year's budget is gone in one month. ... I'm going down to the County Commission to raise hell."

Water department director Mike McWeeny said the new commercial rates were necessary to encourage conservation and help manage the influx of new residential users.

"The rates that we had in place prior to the change last April were not water conservation oriented. They were incentive rates to get people use more reclaimed water," McWeeny said. "But we have committed all of the reclaimed water that we will have available for the foreseeable future. Therefore, if we can get people to use less reclaimed water, we can add additional customers."

Under the old pricing structure, commercial users such as homeowners associations paid 55-cents per 1,000 gallons for the first 100,000 gallons used. Beyond that, the rate was 7-cents per 1,000 gallons. The more water used, the cheaper it got.

Now commercials users pay three different rates depending on how much water they use. For instance, the Northdale Special Tax District's water bill looked like this in June:

* 395,000 gallons at 25-cents per 1,000 gallons.

* 790,000 gallons at 40-cents per 1,000 gallons.

* 489,800 gallons at 55-cents per 1,000 gallons.

The bottom line: Northdale spent $691.69 watering the grass in the common areas of the community. Under the previous system, the bill would have been $163.35.

These rates do not affect individual homeowners who use reclaimed water. Longtime users pay a flat fee of $6 a month. Newer users pay $9 a month. In November 2001, residents rallied to defeat a proposal that would have charged them by the gallon.

McWeeny stressed that the new rates do not generate extra revenue for the county. They basically represent the cost of doing business, he said.

"We're not trying to raise revenue," McWeeny said. "Overall, it's amazing close to neutral. It's not a revenue issue. It's to help people modify their patterns of usage."

Not all large developments will feel the brunt of the new rates. The Eagles, for instance, does not use reclaimed water for common area irrigation, said property manager Leigh Slement. And at the 677-home Fawn Ridge development, property manager Gail Knight said the limited common areas in the development keep usage, and the bill, low.

Troy McDonald, senior manager of assessment programs for the water department, said some communities may even see their bills decrease under the new rates.

One development, Westchase, won't see any change at all for the next few years. It has an agreement with the county for free reclaimed water usage until 2007.

"Our community is kind of bill-free at the moment," said Westchase CDD assistant director of operations Brian Lamb, whose management company is dealing with reclaimed water rate increases in other counties. "Everybody's jumping up the usage rates as a natural way to curb the usage. That's about the best way to do it; hit them in the pocket."

That tactic got the attention of Northdale leaders. Special Tax District treasurer Bill Castens said the community board will be looking at ways to conserve, or face an additional $6,000 a year in water costs.

"Certainly we ought to look at (consumption) anyway and see what types of irrigation systems are out there," Castens said. "If it's $500 to $600 a month, that's enough for us to see what we can do to improve our usage."

Ruskiewicz said he's all for conserving, too, but he thinks the county needs to start looking at homeowners associations in a different light and treat them more like partners than profit streams.

"All the water we use is on the county right of way," Ruskiewicz said. "We're keeping the county right of way maintained for them, to better the quality of life and provide things that the county won't. . . . For a not-for-profit organization that is in the public interest, I think there ought to be a special category."

Ruskiewicz spent most of Tuesday bending the ear of Commissioner Jim Norman, who saw some sense in the argument.

"I agree with the position that we should not treat homeowners associations like businesses," Norman said. "I'm approaching the county attorney and the water department about creating a separate division that we can charge a different rate for these associations."

Norman said he hopes to have something before the board before its next meeting.

-- Logan D. Mabe can be reached at 269-5304 or at mabe@sptimes.com

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