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    Gripes surge as water bills rise

    New reclaimed water rates are causing homeowners associations to turn to the County Commission for relief.

    By LOGAN D. MABE, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published June 24, 2002


    TAMPA -- Going through the mail last week, Carrollwood Village property manager Dan Ruskiewicz opened his monthly reclaimed water bill from the county and the numbers staggered him.

    "Heck, when this came in, it floored me," Ruskiewicz said of the charges that increased 300 to 500 percent for the development's three villages. "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.

    The new rates affect commercial reclaimed water users countywide, including large consumers such as TECO and many area golf courses, in addition to homeowners associations. But the outcry over these new rates, much like that of homeowners who bridled at paying more for residential usage, may result in the creation of a new category for homeowners associations.

    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."

    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 to 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 commercial 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. "It's to help people modify their patterns of usage."

    Not all large developments will feel the brunt of the new rates. Odessa's 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 in Citrus Park, 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, the 3,000-home Westchase, won't see any change at all for the next few years. It has a deal with the county, based on the community's original development agreement, for free reclaimed water usage until 2007.

    "Our community is kind of bill-free at the moment," said Brian Lamb, an operations director at Westchase, 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."

    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.

    Calling the $3,000 monthly increase an "injustice," Ruskiewicz implored commissioners Wednesday to reconsider the rates and institute a lower one for homeowners associations. "This means we have to special assess our people in order to water your right of way and improve the area so we can increase property values so you can get more money in taxes," Ruskiewicz said. "We're not commercial. We provide a public service to the county. We're an extension of the county."

    Commission Chairwoman Pat Frank was sympathetic. "I think we're going to need staff to look at this," she said. "My concern is, even if the rate is justified, that's a tremendous bump up in one month."

    Commissioner Jim Norman said he will try to broker a compromise.

    "We're scheduling an appointment in my office with the players," Norman said. "I thought we would try to pursue a separate category. You've got your homeowners rate, which is set for 30 years. Then there are corporations and golf courses, which are profit-making. Then you've got your homeowners associations, which are community-driven that are being assessed at this corporate rate. So I'm trying to see if we can find something relatively new."

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

    -- A version of this story appeared in another edition of the Times.

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