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$900 water bill leads Safety Harbor couple to call for change in rates

City uses tiered billing to promote conservation
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Posted at 3:40 PM, Jul 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-23 10:24:27-04

SAFETY HARBOR, FL — Safety Harbor residents are speaking out about what they consider outrageous water bills.

The city is centered around water… from flowing fountains, to the city's pier on Tampa bay, to the healing mineral springs that have attracted visitors to the famous Safety Harbor Spa and Resort for nearly a century.

But recently some residents are upset about the city’s water rates driving up their utility bills.

“When we got a $900 bill, we were like ‘Oh my God!’”

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Audrey and John Kaplan's $917 utility bill, including $760 in water charges.

“This month, our bill was $372.42,” said retiree Michele Day. “I know we can’t afford these big bills.”

Christine McFadden bought her home in May, but her family didn’t move in until July 1st.

“Our first bill was around $182, and our second bill was over $320. And we weren’t living here,” McFadden said. “I didn’t even know what to think because I didn’t understand how that bill could be so high.”

“When got a got a $900 bill, we were like ‘Oh my God!’” Audrey Kaplan said.

She and her husband John Kaplan were billed for using nearly 27,000 gallons of water in April.

With a low-flow showerhead, the Kaplan's have in their home, the average five-minute shower uses about 10 gallons of water. That would mean the Kaplans’ estimated monthly water usage at 27,000 gallons in a month, would be the equivalent of them taking 90 showers per day.

“I’m not standing in there for 24 hours a day. There’s two dishes. So we run the dishwasher every second or third day,” Audrey Kaplan said.

But the Kaplans admit they were running their irrigation system.

“We have watered the lawn,” said John Kaplan. “But not for these numbers. It’s impossible.”

But the city says customers often use far more water than they think they are using.

Meter shows up to 1,500 gallons of water a day used for irrigation

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Smart water meter shows the Kaplans used nearly 1,500 gallons watering their lawn on a day in late May

The Kaplans have a new smart water meter, which shows the city exactly how much water they are using and when.

Records show they used up to 1,500 gallons some days on watering when they were establishing their lawn and landscaping at their new construction home.

In Safety Harbor, customers who use a lot of water will pay more per gallon, because the city uses a tier system, in which rates jump from $3.65 per 1,000 gallons for the first 5,000 gallons to nearly $30 per 1,000 gallons for usage over 20,000 gallons.

Mayor Joe Ayoub says the tier structure is intended to encourage conservation.

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Safety Harbor Mayor Joe Ayoub (pictured) says the city's tier pricing is intended to promote conservation and keep bills low for lower-tier users.

“The people that are paying the most and are complaining about their bills are either in the third or fourth tier, where it’s a larger price per gallon of water,” Ayoub said.

He says the increasing rates are not intended to punish people who use large amounts of water.

“They’re not punitive, because you only pay the higher rate on the incremental water you’re using,” Ayoub said.

The city buys water from Pinellas County Utilities at a rate of $4.21 per 1,000 gallons, so the lowest tier customers’ water rates are subsidized.

The city also provides water pipes to homes, meter readers and employees who maintain the system and bill and collect payments.

So high-use customers are helping the city recoup those costs.

“The city’s not making any money on the water at all. So if we adjust one tier, the high-end tier, it has to be pushed to the other tiers, and people on the lower tiers, their rates will go up a little bit. So it’s kind of like reshuffling the deck,” said Ayoub.

Michele Day posted about her high bills on her Next Door app. She says she has heard from dozens of other Safety Harbor utility customers.

“As I read through these every day it gives me a little inspiration to know that I’m not the only one dealing with this,” Day said. “They all have the same question… why is our water so high compared to every place around us? “

Safety Harbor's upper tier rates are higher than in nearby communities

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John and Audrey Kaplan say their first utility bill was over $900 when they moved into their new home.

Based on the price of water alone, residential customers in Safety Harbor pay $270 for 20,000 gallons of water, but just across the street in Clearwater, customers pay $163.

The price of 30,000 gallons of water in Safety Harbor jumps to $565.

While customers in Clearwater pay $291.99, St. Petersburg customers pay $249.62 and Hillsborough County water customers pay $172.60 for the same amount.

It’s not just homeowners who are paying a high price.

The owner of Safety Harbor’s new downtown coin laundry business spoke out at a Safety Harbor City Commission meeting last month after he got a $2,500 utility bill.

“We’re new business owners, so our last one about scared the you-know-what out of us. Because it was so big. We had reached a tier we didn’t know was possible,” Joe Marciello told commissioners.

Mayor Ayoub says the city is working with the business to try to come up with a solution.

Ayoub says other communities are able to offer lower rates, because they operate their own water plants, making it cheaper for them to provide water.

He says 80 percent of customers fall in the lower two tiers of usage and people who use lots of water for irrigation can buy a separate meter for $500 to save money on sewer charges.

“We have a rate study coming up in fiscal year 2022, so we’ll look at it all and take all the feedback that residents are providing us and we’ll always look at a way to be more fair in the rates,” Ayoub said. “But at the end of the day, whatever we pay for the water, we have to charge our customers.”

Customers say they hope those higher pricing tiers will change.

“Every penny counts when you’re retired,” Day said.

“Now I’m jokingly saying please, pee in the pool. It’s saving on the flushing and it will add a little water to the pool,” McFadden said.

Safety Harbor utility customers who want more information about irrigation-only meters or who have questions about their bills can call (727) 724-1555.

If you have a story you think the I-Team should investigate, email us at adam@abcactionnews.com