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Public Service Commission balks at water rate hike in Pasco County

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The Florida Public Service Commission delayed a vote Tuesday on whether to allow a private utility to boost rates so it can switch customers from the unpleasant-tasting, discolored, sediment-filled water it supplies, to cleaner water provided by Pasco County.

Residents of the Summertree retirement community in New Port Richey and county officials objected to the proposed 5.35 percent rate hike, urging the regulators to either kill it or delay a vote.

Commissioners questioned whether Utilities Inc. of Florida could pay for the cleaner water without the higher rates.

But although Pasco County Commissioner Jack Mariano addressed the panel via conference call, no one in any official capacity from local government was on hand to address that question.

So the commission agreed unanimously to delay a vote until Oct. 11.

“I don’t feel like we have complete information,” Commissioner Lisa Polk Edgar said. “I think postponing this for one month for further deliberation, so that we have some of these questions answered, makes sense.”

The increase would amount to nearly $47,000, according to PSC records. Utilities Inc. also has asked for $200,000 to retire the wells at issue, but the commission’s staff recommended taking up that matter later.

Details are here. (Scroll down to Item 7.)

State Rep. Richard Corcoran, the Land O’ Lakes Republican slated to become House speaker, and Sen. Wilton Simpson sent an aide to present their protest of the switchover rate hike.

Both have been harsh critics of Utilities Inc.

And Mariano, during his telephone testimony, complained the utility has been providing bad water for 20 years.

“Rates are among the highest in the country, and now they want to make it higher,” he said. “You cannot let them.”

Members of Summertree Water Alliance, representing residents, denounced Utilities Inc.’s “incompetence and greed.” One showed commissioners pictures of her bathroom plumbing, featuring dark discoloration she blamed on bad water.

Erik Sayler of the Office of Public Counsel, which represents ratepayers before the PSC, said it made sense to wait to see how much the switch would actually cost, rather than decide based on estimates.

Better, he said, to make sure customers get clean water before asking them to pay.

“We’re asking for patience,” Sayler said.

Utility representatives argued the switch has already been delayed too long and that the PSC should approve its rate hike. It sought the increase, they said, to ensure a clean transition.

“We didn’t want any confusion after the fact,” said John Hoy, the company’s chief operating officer.

Additionally, the Illinois-based company has sought rate increases to finance $30 million to improve its facilities in 10 counties, and to allow it to charge customers in those counties the same basic rates.

That could mean rate increases in some areas and decreases elsewhere, Sayler said.

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Michael Moline is a former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal and managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal. Previously, he reported on politics and the courts in Tallahassee for United Press International. He is a graduate of Florida State University, where he served as editor of the Florida Flambeau. His family’s roots in Jackson County date back many generations.

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