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Water billing steams some

Despite conservation efforts, people who skimp on water use are charged a minimum rate. But disparity really can't be avoided, officials say.

By JEAN HELLER

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 27, 2000


PINELLAS PARK -- Harriet Browder is as water-conscious as a person can be. She turns off the tap while she brushes her teeth. She put a low-flow head on her shower, aerators on her faucets, special conservation flappers in her toilets.

So Browder couldn't understand it when her water bill didn't drop.

"Every month it was the same, right to the penny," she said. "I found out that even though I use 2,000 gallons of water a month, Pinellas Park charges me for 3,000. That's the minimum charge. You pay for it whether you use it or not.

"It's outrageous. What's my incentive to conserve? I might just as well pour the extra 1,000 gallons on the ground since it isn't going to cost me any more."

At a time when water conservation is on everybody's mind and cities and counties are imposing severe water-use restrictions on their citizens, policies set in place by many of those same jurisdictions may discourage conservation.

Minimum mandatory-use charges like those Browder faces are only part of the problem. A concept called master metering often camouflages heavy water use and a need to conserve.

"Do you have any idea how many town homes and condos and mobile home parks out there include water as part of the rent or the association fee?" said Pasco County Commissioner Ann Hildebrand. "Those residents have no idea how much water they're using, whether they need to conserve better. There's no incentive to cut back because there is no economic consequence to not cutting back."

Identifying the problem is easier than finding solutions.

At least two communities besides Pinellas Park -- Safety Harbor and Oldsmar -- also charge for minimum water use, though their minimums are lower: 2,000 gallons in both cases.

"We don't have a whole lot of homes that stay under the minimum, but I'm not going to sit here and tell you we don't get complaints from people about that very thing," said Sandy Sears, customer-service supervisor for the utility department in Oldsmar. "When people come to us with the problem, we try to work with them."

Sears said the city is engaged in a rate study now that might address the issue, which affects the community's 5,000 residential meter accounts.

Ed Taylor, Pinellas Park council member, would like to see the system change in his city, too, where there are nearly 17,000 residential meters and another 6,000 master meters. But he says it can't change for a while.

"Many folks here don't use that minimum amount," Taylor said. "The minimum creates a psychological disincentive to conserve. I think our minimum could be backed down to a more reasonable level, but we can't do anything until the new computer we put in to address the Y2K situation is fully operational.

"Is this a mountain we could climb? Yes. But not today."

James Walker, utility billing and recycling manager for Pinellas Park, said one reason to keep the minimum charge is that embedded within it is the money that helps keep the water infrastructure sound.

"The reason we have minimum billing is so we have money for maintenance," Walker said. "Customers who use less can't expect to be billed less, and there are lots of customers who are below the minimum, especially the seniors."

Pinellas Park's incentive to conserve really is targeted at consumers who use the most water. The rates per thousand gallons escalate quickly past those first 3,000.

"It really kicks in for users of more than 8,000 gallons," Walker said.

Other jurisdictions, such as Tampa, St. Petersburg and Hillsborough County, have separate charges to cover infrastructure and other fixed costs.

"We have a base rate," said John Fischer, spokesman for the Hillsborough utility department. "If you use zero gallons of water, you still get that bill to cover our costs. Somebody has to go out and read the meter."

Volume charges are based on actual use.

As for the dilemma created by master metering, there is a way to fix it, said Dave Bracciano, resource conservation coordinator for Tampa Bay Water, the region's principal water wholesaler.

"There are companies that go into, say, a condominium community and install individual water meters," Bracciano said. "They read the meters and bill the residents. The residents pay the company, and the company pays the master meter bill. The companies make their money from the meter-reading fees. They aren't allowed to charge more for the water than the rate on the master meter."

Mainlands, a huge development on U.S. 19 in Pinellas Park, considered individual metering to get away from equalized billing, a system that can encourage overuse because the neighbors of a water hog will foot most of the bill.

"Every home in the Mainlands pays the same thing for water whether two or five people live there," Walker said. "They came in and talked to us about individualized meters, but in the end they decided against it."

In Safety Harbor, where there are more than 5,300 residential meters billed for a minimum of 2,000 gallons of water a month, escalating rates get as high as $7.93 per thousand gallons, according to Lori Hensel, utility billing supervisor.

"I really feel there's an incentive to save water," Hensel said. "Personally, I'm motivated. I have a teenager."

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