LONGWOOD, Fla. – When Jennifer Jensen opened her most recent water bill from Utilities Inc., she couldn't believe her eyes.
“It tripled,” Jenson said. “I about had a heart attack when I got the first bill.”
She wasn't the only one.
Her neighbor Lorraine Trulock says she experienced the exact same thing.
"Our average bill was about $80, and the last bill we got was about $240,” Trulock said.
Both women thought they had a leak somewhere in their home or pool area, causing their money to go right down the drain.
But when they called their water provider Utilities Inc., they were told that drastic water bill increase was indeed part of a rate hike approved by the Florida Public Service Commission.
Both women said they did get a letter warning about the rate increase, but they never anticipated it would be so big.
“It’s hard to know how to cut back and how to make a difference in that bill,” said Jensen.
Now they and others in their Longwood neighborhood are getting letters telling them they need a back-flow water device installed and inspected - which will cost them even more money.
“We have to show proof of the inspection, pay for it,” Trulock said. “And if we don't they will shut our water off.”
At first, many in their neighborhood thought it was a scam. So News 6 started investigating.
We went to the local office of Utilities Inc. located in Altamonte Springs, where we were directed to spokesperson Tom Oakley.
Oakley said rates in many areas that Utilities Inc. serves have been historically low compared to other areas in the state - and that this recent increase was to provide a more uniform rate structure across the board.
“The vast majority of our customers are receiving substantially lower rates under consolidation while a few are seeing an increase,” Oakley said.
As for the letter about the back-flow devices, Oakley said this is definitely not a moneymaking scam, but a state requirement they must follow that was put forth by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
Both the installation and certification of the devices must be done by the customer on their own dime.
We are required to comply with Florida Administrative Code, Subsection 62-555.360(2) which both requires that the devices be installed on customers’ home water systems and that we must periodically send letters to those customers reminding them that they need to have them tested/certified and those results provided to us.
For customers that do not have the devices installed, we provide a reminder letter that they must be installed and certified.
In both cases, per the code, both the installation and certification of the devices must be done at the customers’ expense.
The information that I have provided above, plus a more in-depth discussion of ‘back-flow prevention’ and ‘cross connection’ can be found on our website which we have updated for clarity, here.
But that trickle-down effect of extra costs is something that many in the Bolling Farms neighborhood in Seminole County are not happy about.
“We want to do what's right, we want to pay our fair share,” Trulock said. “We want to contribute like we're supposed to. We’re just confused.”
“I mean I'm to the point that I'm going to put a timer when we take a shower,” said Jensen.
Both ladies say many in their neighborhood said this is the first time in 20 years they have dealt with these new rates and regulations. Oakley provided a timeline to help those affected understand why some are getting these letters now and not before.
- 2006 – The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) implemented a cross connection program
- 2008 – Utilities, Inc. of Florida (UIF) developed and submitted a cross connection program to FDEP that was approved for use in the Florida systems.
- However, litigation was brought forward (by parties other than us) in 2008 that required rule revisions
- 2009 – FDEP held workshops soliciting comment from utilities and the public regarding rule revisions
- 5/5/2014 – FDEP revised the cross-connection requirements and implemented the new rule.
- 12/2014 – UIF submitted and received FDEP approval for our revised cross connection program.
- 2016 began the first year of submitting an Annual Cross Connection report to FDEP for systems serving more than 10K customers
- Initially, FDEP required large systems to begin with bringing commercial connections in compliance then followed by residential connections.
- Since then we have sent out questionnaires to be completed by each customer. For those that responded, the information is fed into the database which generates an annual test notice or request to install a backflow device.
- If no response is received, a second notice is sent, followed by a third. If no response is received after the third notice, we are required to conduct a site survey (physical inspection), which then creates a test or install notice to be sent out.
- Most of the questionnaires began going out in early 2017 and then approximately every 60 days thereafter for notice number two and three if we didn’t get a reply. The customers that recently received a notice were from the site surveys that were performed because we never received the original 2017 questionnaire from these customers.
News 6 also uncovered a lawsuit between Seminole County and the Florida Public Service Commission where the county tried to fight this uniform rate structure. Right now it's still in the appeal process.
So, for now, customers will still need to pay what's required to keep their water flowing.
Read more on the lawsuit, here.