After reviewing customer’s circumstances because of Hurricane Ian, county commissioners seek policy options for allowing additional water bill adjustments

Public Utilities director and county administrator to bring ideas to board for future discussion

At the end of about 22 minutes of discussion on March 7, the Sarasota County commissioners asked County Administrator Jonathan Lewis and Public Utilities Director Mike Mylett to work on options that would enable county water customers to obtain larger adjustments on their bills under special circumstances.

Commissioners referenced letters that they had received from a county water customer who was billed for excess water usage after a pipe broke during Hurricane Ian’s strike last fall, while the homeowner was away from his property.

The Sarasota homeowner previously had contacted the Public Utilities Department and — as indicated by their comments — the commissioners. The man wrote the board members a follow-up email on March 7, explaining that he would be unable to attend their meeting that day in Venice to make his plea in person.

The homeowner asked for a revision in the county’s billing policy to allow for customers to be charged the county’s lowest water rate under circumstances such as the one he and his family had endured. “[N]o one should go through a storm of such magnitude, and then on top of everything else be given a huge water bill by the County Utility office,” the man wrote.

During a presentation, as part of the commission’s March 7 regular meeting, Mylett explained that, in 2020, the board members seated at that time approved a revised water rate adjustment policy. That action cleaned up problems in the previous applicable ordinance, he said, which was implemented in 2010.

That prior policy “allowed for a lot more subjectivity,” Mylett pointed out. The 2020 ordinance, he continued, included “a lot of … changes … to clean up some of the areas we were having challenges with,” including the subjectivity issue.

“We developed a lot more conditions,” Mylett said, for adjusting bills.

For example, he noted, staff frequently receives calls from customers who have topped off their pools and feel that they should not have to pay more money for that action. However, Mylett added, that is part of their regular homeowner maintenance, “so we do not compensate for that.”

However, he pointed out, if a customer can provide documentation that a pool had to be repaired and then refilled, “We’ll give [the homeowner] an adjustment on that.”

County staff also provides an adjustment when a homeowner initially fills a pool, Mylett said.

The 2020 policy references the latter situation thus: “Customers may require water from the Utilities System to initially fill a new swimming pool upon its original installation, and that water did not enter the sanitary sewer collection system so [it] should not count toward wastewater billing …”

“The other major change” in the 2020 policy, Mylett explained, regarded the county’s tiered water rate system. The way the system works, he said, is “the more water you use, the more you pay for that water.”

The goal was to encourage conservation, he pointed out. “It’s been very successful,” he said, adding that such a strategy has worked statewide and across the country.

The first tier, he noted, is for usage up to 4,000 gallons a month. If a Public Utilities Department customer whose usage normally falls into that tier has “an abnormal event,” he said, and the water usage jumps to the level of the third tier, for example, that customer gets an adjustment to the first tier.

Likewise, Mylett continued, if a customer uses 12,000 to 15,000 gallons a month — the amount designated as the third tier — and the customer ends up using far more water one month, the rate can be adjusted to the third tier for that month.

The 2020 ordinance that Mylett referenced calls an “Abnormal Event” one in which a “substantial increase” in the volume of water a customer uses during a specific month “is unaccounted for, unexpected, or due to unusual or extenuating circumstances, including, but not limited to, plumbing system damage due to accidents, vandalism, or water theft, or other occurrences generally beyond the Customer’s control …”

That policy also discusses concealed leaks, describing them as “[a] failure of a private plumbing system causing a plumbing leak underground or behind a wall or walls that is not readily visible to, or detectable by, a Customer and resulting in a substantial increase in water consumption.”

“In all cases,” the 2020 policy says, “within three (3) months of the correction of the Concealed Leak or Abnormal Event, the Customer must present to Utilities a written request for an adjustment. The request must include the cause of the leak, the date the leak was repaired and a copy of the paid receipt for supplies and/or labor associated with repairing the leak and the cause must have been corrected.”

Thanks to the modifications in that 2020 ordinance, Mylett told the commissioners on March 7, “We’ve reduced the number of adjustments that we have to do on an annual basis,” as well as the dollar value, “considerably.”

Mylett also showed the board members a slide with details about adjustments in neighboring counties, noting, “We are pretty much in the middle of the pack. … We feel that our current policy adequately addresses the major issues that we see on a routine basis here in Sarasota.”

The slide said, for example, that Charlotte County utilities staff will provide property owners adjustments for leaks, initial filling of pools, unexplained use and pool repairs. However, Hillsborough County, for another example, provides adjustments only for leaks and consumption that is double the normal usage for a customer.

Lee County staff adjusts bills for unexpected water loss, the slide noted.

Mylett told the commissioners that he and his staff recommended they keep the 2020 policy in place.

Special circumstances, bonds and more education

Following Mylett’s presentation, Commissioner Nancy Detert told him, “You’re the expert in this field. … I am very happy to support you usually.”

However, referencing the March 7 email from the customer who was billed for use of excess water as a result of Hurricane Ian damage, she asked Mylett, “How do you handle something like a hurricane?”

“That customer did get an adjustment,” Mylett replied. The original bill was $3,000, Mylett told her; staff reduced it by more than $800. Nonetheless, he acknowledged, “They wanted an additional adjustment.”

“What is the best you can mitigate [the bill] to?” Detert asked.

If the customer typically uses water at a lower tier in the billing system, he said, staff would adjust the bill so the customer paid the lower tier rate. In this case, he continued, the customer usually uses water at the third tier level. Therefore, Mylett said, staff adjusted the bill to that third tier rate.

“Why would they not be satisfied with that then?” Detert asked.

Mylett laughed and replied, “I can’t answer that.”

Nonetheless, Detert called the staff adjustment in that case a common-sense response.

Commissioner Michael Moran acknowledged, “I think the changes in 2020 were thoughtful.”

However, he continued, in the case Detert had referenced, the customer and his family left their home in compliance with county Emergency Management staff’s recommendation to evacuate before Hurricane Ian struck. Because a pipe broke, Moran continued, the water ran continuously while the family members were away from their property.

Moran indicated that any customer who is out of the county when an incident occurs that results in damage to the water line to the customer’s home could lose a substantial amount of water without any awareness of the situation.

Then Moran asked Mylett, “Is there any type of appellate process” for a customer who has experienced “incredibly odd circumstances?” For example, Moran said, could the customer seek relief from the County Commission?

Moran added, “I’m looking for any flexibility [for a property owner] who got caught up in such a pinch.”

Mylett responded that no such process exists in Sarasota County or in any other counties in the state, to his knowledge.

Replying to a later question on that point from Commissioner Joe Neunder, Mylett confirmed his statement to Moran: The county has no policy that allows the commissioners to address an appeal over a water rate adjustment.

County Administrator Jonathan Lewis took the opportunity to point out that if the county’s meter readers find an anomaly in usage, they take the attitude, “There’s something wrong here.”

Staff will contact the customer about such a situation, Lewis added.

“We do that on a routine basis,” Mylett said, after reviewing the customer’s normal usage figures.

Moran also asked whether further modifications to the county’s policy for water rate adjustments would have negative consequences for the bonds the county has issued to pay for utility system improvements.

Mylett replied, “I don’t have a specific answer for that question. I’m not as well versed in the bond covenants.”

However, Mylett continued, “In general, the rule is, you have to pay for the water you use.” The service cannot be free, he added, given the bond covenants.

The 2020 policy cites “the requirement under the County’s outstanding utility bonds that all Customers pay for the services provided …”

When the bond rating agencies are considering how to rate Sarasota County bonds, Mylett told Moran, they take a look at the pledge of utility revenue to pay off the bonds.

“You’re impairing me as a bond holder,” Moran characterized the situation when customers are not required to pay for their water usage.

“That is correct,” Mylett told him.

Then County Administrator Lewis suggested that if the commissioners gave him and Mylett the direction to do so, they would come up with options for rate adjustments that they could bring back to the board for further discussion. For example, Lewis added, the commissioners could implement a policy to cover scenarios for charging a customer the lowest water rate if special circumstances appeared to warrant that.

Moran told Lewis he liked that idea. “I’m all for being punitive … if somebody’s not conserving water,” Moran added. “That’s not what we’re talking about here.”

Commissioner Mark Smith joked that Moran had brought up many of the points he had planned to raise. “I think we should, under extraordinary conditions, such as a hurricane,” consider implementing a policy to charge a customer the lowest rate, Smith said. If county staff has called for an evacuation, he pointed out, a family cannot get back to its home to turn off the water if a problem arises. Still, Smith agreed that the commissioners could not impose a policy that would affect the bond covenants.

Lewis told Smith he was not certain that the board members could implement a policy that would be “situationally based.” Moreover, Lewis noted, the vast majority of requests for rate adjustments “aren’t related to storms.”

Additionally, Lewis pointed out, if people are evacuating at county staff’s direction in advance of a potential hurricane strike, those customers could turn off the water before leaving their homes. Staff could provide more education to customers to encourage them to take such action, Lewis said.

Finally, Chair Ron Cutsinger asked Mylett if he could work with Lewis and come back “with a couple of options.”

“Yes, sir,” Mylett replied.