Stranger pays water bill for vacant home

Published June 20, 2006

HUDSON - Sgt. Christopher Kawalec called his mother from Afghanistan on Sunday with the news of his return home next month and the question of what they would do about that big water bill for his empty house.

" 'Sonny, don't you worry,' " his mother, Lidia McQuade, recalled saying.

That's because a check for the $338.25 bill is in the mail, courtesy of a stranger from South Pasadena.

McQuade has disputed the accuracy of the April bill for her son's unoccupied home. Since he left for Afghanistan in March 2005, the water bills at his home were between $17 and $20. McQuade could find no reason for the dramatic spike in April, but Pasco County Utilities refused to budge, saying it had to stand by its meter reading.

After The St. Petersburg Times story reported McQuade's battle with the county, she got phone calls from nearly a dozen people who offered advice and shared their own stories of dealing with water bills that seemed unusually expensive.

One of the callers, David P. George of South Pasadena, told McQuade he'd like to go ahead and pay the bill for her. He mailed the check yesterday.

"I've never been quite the activist," said George. "Here I am, sitting in Pinellas Park, in air conditioning, and here's this guy in Afghanistan worrying if his mother can pay the bill."

McQuade said she never expected such a reaction.

"It's so nice that somebody makes this gesture," she said. "This is going to lift up my son's faith and morale, that there are people who care."

Among the other people who contacted McQuade was Jane Aldrich, secretary of the Parkwood Acres Civic Association in Hudson.

The association's community building is used infrequently each month. Aldrich said a typical water bill for the building is about $18. But the bill covering April 11 to May 15 was $228.

It said the building had used 59,000 gallons of water, she said. "At our meetings, nobody even goes to the bathroom!" she said.

Eighteen days after that billing period ended, she and her husband looked at the meter and saw the building had used only about 1,000 gallons since the last reading.

"Something is wrong," said Aldrich, who has asked County Commissioner Jack Mariano to look into the matter.

Joe Mahler of Bayonet Point also had a problem when he opened up his water bill in March. A single man without much of a yard to water, his bills had been running around $10. This one was for $7,983.

Turned out, he said, someone in the billing office had punched in an additional zero for the number of gallons he had used. The department quickly cleared that mistake after he complained, he said, though he continues to dispute the latest bill, which totals nearly $237.

Pasco utilities has about 90,000 customers, and the department does get frequent complaints about water bills, said Bob Sigmond, director of Pasco utilities.

But Sigmond said he did not discern any trend among people with complaints about their water bills, other than that many customers do not realize the hefty costs of a running toilet or faucet or malfunctioning sprinkler system.

Only once in the last 20 years, he said, has the department determined that a meter was running too fast.

"I don't think people realize," he said, "the amount of water that goes through the meters."

Jodie Tillman can be reached at 727 869-6247 or jtillman@sptimes.com.