Bruce Ritchie reports:
A bill filed by a Senate budget subcommittee chairman would prohibit the Public Service Commission from allowing private utilities to charge customers higher rates for using large amounts of water.
SB 1244 appears aimed at Aqua Utilities Florida, the largest private water utility in Florida. But the bill is raising broader concerns among some environmentalists who say it could be a warning against utilities that want to promote water conservation.
Some water experts say charging people more per gallon for using large amounts of water encourages conservation and keeps water affordable for low-income families.
For example, the city of Tallahassee charges 14 cents per 100 gallons for the first 7,000 gallons of water used each month. That increases from 19 cents per 100 gallons for more than 7,000 gallons to 24 cents per 100 gallons for more than 20,000 gallons per month.
SB 1244 would prohibit the PSC from approving tiered water rates based on consumption. The bill was filed by Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla and chairman of the Senate Budget Subcommittee on General Government Appropriations.
“This bill is directed towards a practice of conservation rates that I think are obscene and predatory,” Hays said. “And I don’t want to have any of my constituents subjected to such a rip-off. It is my plan to stop it.”
The PSC only regulates private utilities, so customers of Tallahassee and other publicly owned utilities would not be affected. Florida has 158 investor-owned water utilities serving 124,619 water customers in 36 counties, according to the PSC.
Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon of Florida, said the bill would seem to eliminate an important incentive for water conservation. He had not seen the bill before being contacted by The Florida Current.
“The most important thing we can do for water in the state of Florida is to encourage people to conserve more,” he said. “Water conservation rates are the primary tool used by utilities in order to encourage people to conserve water.”
Hays said the state should fine people if they’re wasting water rather than let companies generate revenue by charging higher rates based on consumption.
Aqua Utilities Florida Inc. has 23,000 water customers, with most of its water systems located in Central Florida. The company’s rate increase request last year before the Public Service Commission spilled over into the 2011 legislative session when bills were proposed that would allow utilities to charge customers in advance for water system upgrades.
The company requested a $4.1 million rate boost, and a decision by the PSC is expected next month. Hundreds of people attended PSC public hearings last year holding signs and complaining about bad water quality and poor customer service.
SB 1244 requires that water provided by utilities be “reasonably free from objectionable taste, color, odor, or sand or other sediment.” Utilities can be fined by the PSC for failing to provide satisfactory service.
The bill also would prohibit utilities from recovering more than 50 percent of the rate case expense or from recovering expenses from more than one rate case at a time. The bill also would establish a study committee on investor-owned water and wastewater utility systems.
Asked if the bill was aimed at Aqua Utilities, Hays said, “I don’t care what the name of the company is; I detest the practice of ripping people off this way.”