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Rate case spurs Summertree residents to form coalition

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HUDSON — The 250-plus residents who make up the Summertree Water Alliance were plotting strategy last week, including taking busloads of protesters to a water rate increase final hearing in Tallahassee Nov. 14.

Florida Public Service Commission granted a 5.13 percent interim water rate increase in July for Utilities Inc. of Florida. The private utility had sought 19.36 percent more.

A rate hike would mean the current total bill for a typical customer here could go up from $58.57 to $69.64. The Altamonte Springs-based private utility provides service to 22 systems in five Florida counties, including Pasco and Pinellas.

Given water quality and other issues, residents think that’s much too high, and about double equivalent Pasco County utility bills.

Several affected subdivisions banded together in the new alliance, which drew an overflow crowd Thursday to the Summertree clubhouse. Forest Lakes Estates in Zephyrhills sent a representative.

The residents also are appealing to friends in high places.

State Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Lutz, wrote a letter to PSC officials urging them to delay the rate hike hearing until some water quality issues are resolved, Jared Ochs, his legislative assistant, told alliance members.

At the alliance meeting last Thursday, Pasco Commissioner Jack Mariano said he is renewing his efforts to convince the Legislature to overturn state laws on the handling of utility rate increase requests.

“The system is set up for them,” Mariano said about utilities. “They’re set up to make money.” The more the utility spends, the more money the company can make, Mariano said.

Mariano doesn’t like the fact the utilities can have their rate case expenses reimbursed if the PSC approves a rate increase. “How absurd is that?”

Mariano and others want to limit rate case reimbursements to 50 percent of the firm’s expenses.

Lobbyists for utilities “didn’t want to give an inch” when nearly a dozen measures to overhaul utility regulations were introduced in the Legislature in February 2012, Mariano said. With Florida Senate and House committees holding hearings for the 2014 session, Mariano wants to reintroduce the utility rule modifications soon.

The changes, if approved by state lawmakers, could aid the Summertree Water Alliance should it appeal a PSC water rate decision, Mariano said.

In other proposed changes, environmental regulators would be required to coordinate with PSC, Mariano explained. Under the current system, the Florida Department of Environmental Regulation often doesn’t share any water quality findings with PSC staff, he said.

To make some rate hike hearings unnecessary, Mariano and others promote adding a system where a private utility can pass through some costs to customers, such as price increases for chlorine for water treatment. That could remove temptation to file a rate increase request with a large markup on items, Mariano thinks.

In addition to opposing the rate increase request, the Summertree residents still want the Florida Governmental Utility Authority to buy Utilities Inc. of Florida. The Longwood-based FGUA has bought several private utility systems around the state, including the Aloha and Lindrick private utilities in West Pasco. Its latest purchase, of Aqua Utilities, which was the largest private water and sewer company in Florida and had some 3,000 customers in Pasco County, closed in March.

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