Fasano threatens to cut Aloha's service area

Published May 17, 2007

Angry over Aloha Utilities' delays improving its drinking water, state Sen. Mike Fasano has threatened to take away the company's business in Pasco County.

Fasano, R-New Port Richey, wrote lawmakers a letter Monday asking for a September meeting to discuss bypassing regulators and stripping Aloha of its turf. Aloha serves more than 25, 000 customers in Seven Springs, Trinity and Holiday.

But Wednesday evening, Fasano said he would support turning over just the growing Seven Springs-Trinity service area to Pasco County. Fasano said he has gotten few, if any, water complaints from the built-out Aloha Gardens area in Holiday.

For more than a decade, customers including Fasano have complained to the Florida Public Service Commission of dirty, smelly Aloha water.

Under the commission's threat to strip Aloha of its Seven Springs and Trinity service, the company agreed last year to improvements, notably a $6-million anion water treatment system.

But the improvements are at least six months behind schedule, and Fasano said complaints keep flowing.

"I am extremely disappointed in how you and your staff have been handling the settlement agreement, " Fasano wrote Monday to the PSC.

PSC spokeswoman Kirsten Olsen said Wednesday the agency is reviewing Fasano's letter and "will respond accordingly."

But Aloha president Steve Watford said progress has been made. The utility has paid the county $5-million in impact fees for the upgrades, begun making payments toward the project, and finished preliminary engineering, he said in a written statement Wednesday.

However, Watford suggested that might not go much farther.

"There is no sense in our expending any further funds if the county may take over, possibly nullifying the voluntary settlement agreement we entered into with the PSC and customers, " he said.

Watford also blamed the delays on the county's Utilities Department, which is supposed to provide water to Aloha to boost Aloha's treatment systems.

In a quarterly report to the PSC filed April 4, Aloha said the "lack of definitive information on the timing, quantity and rates of delivery of the county bulk water supply continues to impact the overall timing of the project."

Without the details, Aloha warned it would be against the interests of customers to proceed with more detailed planning. The information was received April 11, and Aloha moved ahead, Watford said. Permits are still needed.

Bruce Kennedy, assistant county administrator for utilities, did not return a message seeking comment Wednesday. Fasano said he had spoken with Kennedy and understood Aloha could tap the county water when needed.

By going through the Legislature, Fasano will sidestep the usual way utilities are taken over through the legal system. The turnover could take years - even without a court battle.

Counties have the power under state law to take over a utility through a condemnation court case. In that scenario, the county would have to compensate the utility. But Fasano's plan would not compensate Aloha.

It's unclear how Fasano's ploy would hold up legally. Olsen said she could not address the issue because it goes beyond the state agency's work under the Legislature.

Takeovers do have risk. Mad Hatter Utility successfully sued Pasco after the county took some of its customers in the 1990s, citing service problems.

Aloha complaints have piqued the County Commission's interest recently. After a dispute over Aloha requiring the new Alli-Gators Grill & Bar in Trinity to pay $300, 000 for a reclaimed water line before water is provided, Commissioner Jack Mariano began exploring the county's role regulating utilities.

At Tuesday's meeting in New Port Richey, he plans to discuss the county taking over utility regulation from the state.

Times staff writer Jodie Tillman contributed to this report. David DeCamp can be reached at (727) 869-6232 or ddecamp@sptimes.com.