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County hunts water wasters

Pinellas will pay overtime to 47 employees to enforce restrictions around the clock.


© St. Petersburg Times, published April 6, 2001

Pinellas will pay overtime to 47 employees to enforce restrictions around the clock.

Pinellas County will unleash a crew of inspectors Saturday who will work seven days a week, 24 hours a day to catch those who waste water.

The push comes in the wake of an emergency order issued by the Southwest Florida Water Management District last month to conserve the precious resource as the Tampa Bay area experiences its worst drought in the more than 85 years that records have been kept.

In response to the order, the county has assembled a team of 47 workers willing to work overtime to enforce the restrictions in unincorporated Pinellas County and Largo, Seminole and beach communities except Clearwater Beach. Only two full-time workers were enforcing watering rules before the order was issued.

"If we see it and it is in violation, you will have to talk to the judge or pay the fine," said Tim Wiley, director of customer service for Pinellas County Utilities.

The team of inspectors will be equipped with "hot sheets," comprehensive lists of addresses that have been the target of complaints and the day and time that tipsters believe the violations occurred.

"The more people we have out issuing warnings and citations, the better opportunity we have for reducing water use," said Pick Talley, the county's utilities director.

The county trained a set of troops during four, two-hour workshops in March. All were provided notebooks that contain guidelines for water restriction enforcement. Employees also meet regularly to discuss better ways to crack down on violators.

They have their work cut out for them.

A recent sheet had 170 reported violators, including a hospital in Largo, a local U.S. Post Office, fast-food restaurants on Missouri Avenue and East Bay Drive and banks in Clearwater and Oldsmar. A number of apartments, condominiums and residents also have been reported for breaking the rules.

All of this surveillance comes at a high price.

The first month of the program will require 590 hours of overtime each week at a cost of $11,800 per week, Wiley said. As the days get warmer, the number is likely to increase to about 1,180 hours each week and require an additional $23,600 in weekly overtime.

The funds will come from the utilities' operating budget, but the costs likely will be passed on to customers through their water bills, Wiley said.

Violators will get at least one chance to reform their behavior.

The first notice will come by way of letter, notifying the wayward waterers they are out of compliance. If the calls persist, their subdivision, address and specifics about their watering habits will be added to a tip sheet used by inspectors during their patrol.

Those who still fail to comply face fines ranging from $60 to $500.

Utilities employees have heard all the excuses. One resident claimed his cat had scurried in the garage and switched on the water sprinklers. Another blamed the improper watering on someone who broke in and turned on the water.

Still others don't apologize at all. A Belleair Shores woman informed utilities employees she would water her grass as much as she liked because she could afford the fines, Wiley said.

The county also has taken steps to counter residents who say they didn't know about the water restrictions. Updated water restriction information has been added to a customer service telephone line and the county's Web page.

Future plans call for more training workshops and a phone line dedicated to reporting violators.

But all this work may not not decrease water usage appreciably, officials said. Pinellas County used, on average, 72-million gallons of water a day last year. The first three months of this year show a decrease in use to 71-million gallons a day.

"I don't know that they're going to see a big change in our water use," Talley said. "Most people we find irrigating on the wrong day have had a malfunction of their system, were out of town or have other reasons that may be okay, like new planting."

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