By Stacie Schaible
Kay Paight has an unusual water bill, just like some of her neighbors in Dana Shores.
But she doesn’t owe a dime because her bill shows she hasn’t been using water since September.
“I’ve been getting free water,” Paight said. “Three of my neighbors across the street are getting $300- to $500-a-month bills while I enjoy zero bills.”
Although she hasn’t paid for water in months, Paight said she’s speaking out because she feels there’s a major problem with how the city calculates water usage and processes bills.
“All of my friends are like, ‘Why would you blow this gig?’ It’s free water,” she said. “In a month or two, that could change. What if I’m all of the sudden getting a $1,500 water bill? How can I have a voice when the error may swing the other way?”
Residents across Tampa have been questioning the Tampa Water Department’s processes for meter reading, billing and other systems since a spate of unusually high bills surfaced in Dana Shores on Jan. 10.
News Channel 8 and The Tampa Tribune has received hundreds of phone calls and e-mail messages from homeowners complaining about bills that were, in some cases, five to 10 times higher than normal.
Paight, who lives in the same Dana Shores neighborhood where residents reported high bills, is one of the first to come forward about receiving no water charges. She doesn’t understand how her family of three, doing laundry every other day in their 4,000-square-foot home with a pool, could have a bill documenting no water use for six months.
Her bill also shows a credit for $18.
“The city need to acknowledge that yes, there’s an obvious problem,” Paight said. “There are obviously people with very high bills that are largely unfounded. There are people like me, who’ve been enjoying free water.”
Water department officials could not be immediately reached for comment.
Steve Daignault, public works administrator, told the Tampa City Council last week that leaks, inaccurate meter reading and errors in billing have led to some abnormally high bills.
The issue prompted Mayor Pam Iorio to create an internal task force to investigate the water department’s billing, meter reading and other processes. The task force is expected to present its findings to city council members next week.
Meanwhile, public works officials have hired outside plumbers to help with more than 300 inspections at resident’s homes and council members have voted to suspend the two highest charges for water use.
Daignault said some changes have already been made to ensure meter readings are accurate. In the past, a meter reader’s name could be overwritten if another employee checked or made modifications on a report.
Log-in identifications are no longer overwritten, Daignault said, because “we certainly want them to be accountable, to trace activities.”
Other changes include the city abolishing bi-monthly meter readings. Under the old system, customers would receive a bill showing actual water use one month and an estimated use the next.
Council members said bi-monthly readings were inaccurate and approved the hiring of an independent company to help read meters every month until August.
Daignault said his department is drafting a bid request to make monthly meter readings permanent.
Reporter Ray Reyes contributed to this report.