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Summertree residents protest water rate increase

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NEW PORT RICHEY — Many among dozens of Summertree residents recently complained about a water rate hike for the private utility serving the Hudson-area community along S.R. 52.

“I have a dog who knows enough not to drink the water,” resident Ann M. Ryan testified about what comes out of her tap.

Other residents also expressed dismay. They asked why the community of some 1,100 people is the only one in the area served by a private utility.

Florida Public Service Commission staff convened the Aug. 7 customer meeting to get reactions to the 5.13 percent interim water rate increase for Utilities Inc. of Florida.

The company had requested 19.36 percent more. That would mean the current total bill for a typical Summertree customer could go up from $58.57 to $69.64.

The final decision is due Nov. 14, according to Bart Fletcher, the PSC’s public utilities supervisor for the accounting and finance. If the interim rate hike is denied, customers would get a refund of the extra charge, with interest.

Only customers were allowed to speak at the meeting, but Fletcher explained UIF last got a rate increase in December 2010. Utility executives filed the request May 29 for another increase because of higher operating costs and to pay for plant improvements.

The Altamonte Springs-based private utility provides water and wastewater service to 22 systems in five Florida counties, including Pasco and Pinellas.

Summertree resident Joe Mitchell, however, said UIF provides only drinking water to Summertree from four wells. The company contracts with Pasco County to handle sewage.

Mitchell said his research shows the county charges $4.70 per thousand gallons for wastewater service to Summertree, yet the company bills customers $12.31. That’s a difference of $7.61, Mitchell said.

Mitchell said his most recent bill was for $69.92, based on 2,620 gallons of water and sewage, yet he believes Pasco County would have charged him $38.15 for the same service.

Ryan wondered about the extent of improvements in Summertree when UIF has facilities in 15 states. “We seem to be victims” of the economies of scale the utility often cites.

After a July 13 power outage, Ryan said, she had to substitute bottled water for five days, until the tap water became suitable again.

“The drinking water, you can’t drink it,” Ron Scuderi testified. He said he has to clean shower heads every week because sediments clog the nozzles.

Scuderi said he resorts to buying ice cubes and bottled water because of water quality concerns of the tap water. He buys filters for faucets, salt for a water softener and parts every six months for his water heater. He uses tap water only to shower, wash floors or cook with if it is boiled first.

Scuderi estimates he is spending an extra $700 every six months because he distrusts the tap water.

Fletcher said unhappy residents could ask county commissioners to consider buying out the private utility, but the rate hike case doesn’t touch upon that topic.

Residents who could not attend the meeting still have several options to submit written comments, Fletcher concluded. For questions, call the PSC office of consumer assistance and outreach at (800) 342-3552.

People also can consult with the Office of Public Counsel, which represents consumers before the PSC, by calling (800) 342-0222.

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