By STEVE HUETTEL
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 24, 2000
TAMPA -- Want to know how many gallons of water you used last month?
If you're a city water customer, you can't tell half the time by simply looking at your water bill. You need a calculator for the other six months of the year.
The city reads water meters for 116,000 accounts every other month. For the in-between months, customers are billed for an estimated amount of water based on average consumption.
Confused? It gets worse.
The bills that have actual meter readings show how much you used for two months. To figure out the previous month's consumption, you have to subtract the estimated use from the two-month total.
City officials blame money for the confusion.
During tight budget times in 1981, Mayor Bob Martinez cut the city's corps of 19 meter-readers nearly in half and did away with monthly readings.
Reading meters every other month saves the city about $450,000 a year, said Butch Hill, manager of the city's utility accounting division.
But this money-pinching approach can be confusing and also can let undetected leaks run longer before you know there's a problem.
Each bill contains a 14-month history of water consumption, Hill says, giving consumers a gauge for water use.
But that raises another problem. Water consumption is reported in a measurement few people can picture: 100 cubic feet, which the city abbreviates as CCF. The fine print on the back of the bill shows that 100 cubic feet equals 750 gallons.
"I understand a gallon better," Hill acknowledged.
The bills report consumption in cubic feet because that's how the meters measure it. Computers could convert it to gallons for the water bill, Hill said, but that would confuse customers who check their own meters and compare the readings against their bills, he said.
In contrast, the Hillsborough County Water Department's monthly bills include actual meter readings and report consumption in gallons.
In 1992, the county tried cutting back meter readings to every other month, said spokesman John Fischer. But customers complained so loudly the department reverted to monthly readings.
The county has installed meters that read out in gallons ever since its utilities department began operating in the mid-1970s, Fischer said.
"I think most people understand what a gallon is. They get milk in gallons," he said. "A hundred cubic feet -- what is that?"