With unanimous vote, County Commission revises water billing policy to allow for adjustments if customer can demonstrate excessive usage during a ‘Declared State of Emergency’

Incident during Hurricane Ian strike led to change

In early March, Sarasota County Commissioner Michael Moran won support from his colleagues for county staff to look into revising the policy regarding rate adjustments for customers who had experienced excessive water usage related to an emergency situation.

The example he provided had been conveyed to him by a constituent, he said. That resident had a pipe break after Hurricane Ian struck Southwest Florida in late September 2022. The man and his family had evacuated from their home, Moran explained. Thus, they were unaware of the situation until their return.

The homeowner asked for an adjustment in the county 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 in an email to the commissioners.

The commissioners ended up discussing the situation with county Public Utilities Director Mike Mylett, who explained details of the county’s water billing policy.

“That customer did get an adjustment,” Mylett reported. The original bill was $3,000, Mylett said; staff reduced it by more than $800. Nonetheless, he acknowledged, “[The customer] wanted an additional adjustment.”

County Administrator Jonathan 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.”

Ultimately, after about 22 minutes of discussion, Chair Ron Cutsinger asked Mylett if he could work with Lewis and come back “with a couple of options.”

“Yes, sir,” Mylett replied.

This week — without any other discussion of the issue having occurred — the commissioners unanimously approved a resolution that amended the county’s Utilities Billing Adjustment Policy, which superseded the previous resolution, which dated to 2020.

The item was on the board’s Consent Agenda of routine business matters. Typically, none of the commissioners discusses any of those items unless they have concerns about one or more and pull them to address those issues. During their regular meeting on July 11, no commissioner offered a remark on the amended policy.

The new resolution includes the following section under the heading, “Adjustments requested during a Declared State of Emergency”:

“Florida Statute §252.38(3)(a)(5) provides authority for political subdivisions to declare a State of Local Emergency and to waive the procedures and formalities otherwise required of political subdivisions to take whatever action is necessary to ensure the health, safety, and welfare of the community. Water and wastewater billing adjustments resulting from an Abnormal Event during a Declared Sarasota County State of Emergency period may be requested when:

  • 1. “The Abnormal Event occurred within a Declared Sarasota County State of Emergency period, and the Customer’s current bill includes excessive usage.” (The resolution defines “Abnormal Event” as “A substantial increase in the volume of water provided by Sarasota County Public Utilities (hereinafter referred to as ‘Utilities’) that has flowed through the water meter to a Customer in which the usage 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 a Customer’s control.”)
  • 2. “The water or wastewater billing adjustment is sought for a period during a Declared Sarasota County State of Emergency.
  • 3. “The Customer has not received a previous water or wastewater adjustment within the past calendar year.
  • 4. “The water consumption within the billing period the Customer is seeking the billing adjustment is greater than 1.5 times the Customer’s average consumption compared to the same billing period in previous years.”

Below No. 4 are the following stipulations:

  • a. “Water consumption over 1.5 times the average consumption threshold will be billed at the minimum tier rate for an Abnormal Event occurring during the Declared Sarasota County State of Emergency.
  • b. “All billing adjustment requests for wastewater will be capped at 10,000 gallons for an Abnormal Event occurring during the Declared Sarasota County State of Emergency.”

Finally, No. 5. says, “In all cases, within sixty (60) days of the Declared Sarasota County State of Emergency, the Customer shall present a written request for a water or wastewater adjustment to Utilities.”

With the vote of approval this week, a county staff memo in the agenda packet said, staff will implement the changes immediately “and update its internal procedures to be consistent with the new policy requirements. Additionally, staff will provide a copy of the approved policy change through the department webpage, bill messaging, and other media.”

Reaction from the resident who prompted the change

In response to the board action, The Sarasota News Leader corresponded via email with the county resident, John Shamsey, whose complaint led to the revised policy.

Shamsey wrote, “I would just overall say that this whole experience has been eye-opening and quite disheartening at the same time. The attitude and behavior of the County staff (management level, not lower level people) has been disappointing. I think the issues we have raised (i.e., that it is not fair to be charged a premium water rate for water you involuntarily ‘used’ as a result of Hurricane Ian damage) is kind of common sense, but the resistance I have met from County management since last September has been surprising and disappointing. That being said, the County Commissioners have been much more receptive …”

Shamsey did note that the issue was supposed to have been discussed again at the commission dais before any action was taken. Nonetheless, he added, “The change proposed in the new Resolution is very good …”

“However,” Shamsey continued, “the problem is, as written this Resolution will provide no relief for Hurricane Ian victims at all, as it will become effective upon adoption and only affect future events. In  my opinion this is quite significant, as this goes against the wishes of the Commission as they clearly wanted options on providing Hurricane Ian relief (they also requested an option to look at an appeal process — which is also not addressed in the Resolution) and it appears the Utility Department has simply ignored this major aspect of it.”

During the March discussion, 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?

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