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Summertree group renews quest for buyout of private utility

Published:   |   Updated: April 22, 2014 at 03:18 PM

Fearful utility lobbyists might push through adverse state legislation, the Summertree Water Alliance task force is renewing efforts for Pasco County to buy out the private utility that serves several Hudson-area subdivisions.

Residents always thought a buyout would be the ultimate solution to problems with Utilities Inc., task force leader Ann Marie Ryan said Friday.

“We want Pasco to buy us,” Ryan said. If the county can’t arrange it, perhaps Florida Governmental Utility Authority could, she added.

Utilities Inc. officials could not be reached for comment on whether the firm would be willing to sell.

Ryan said she and a delegation of about 50 residents planned to appeal to Pasco commissioners at their meeting yesterday. Reactions weren’t available at press time.

More than 250 residents joined the alliance when it first formed in September. Busloads of protesters traveled to Tallahassee on Nov. 14 for a Public Service Commission hearing on a proposed rate increase.

State lawmakers from the area, including state Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, and state Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Lutz, have been “terrific,” Ryan said. They introduced bills this year to place some limitations on how private utilities can file for rate increases, among other changes.

Commissioner Jack Mariano, who spoke at the first alliance meeting, continues to advocate for changes.

Mariano invited the group to speak at the April 22 meeting after Ryan sent a recent letter detailing concerns about legislative proposals and counterproposals. Time is running out because the 2014 regular session of the Legislature scheduled to concludeMay 2.

Simpson introduced Senate Bill 272 that offers some protection for customers, Ryan observed.

Corcoran pushed House Bill 357, which was intended to be a companion bill to the Senate proposal, Ryan remarked. However, amendments have changed the intent of the House bill beyond recognition, Ryan believes.

Utility lobbyists backed competing legislation as well that would “permit them to raise our rates even before improving our water quality,” Ryan wrote in her letter.

That made many alliance members nervous, Ryan recalled.

On March 3, however, state Rep. Amanda Murphy, D-New Port Richey, filed H.B. 1321 as another possible companion to Simpson’s S.B. 272, according to Rachel Perrin Rogers, chief legislative aide to Simpson. The would give lawmakers an outlet in case the original language of Corcoran’s bill could not be restored.

“The plan is to pass Senate Bill 272 next week,” Rogers wrote in an email Friday.

“An incredible, incredible journey,” Ryan said about the experiences of alliance members. And it’s not over yet.