No freebies: Water stops if bills unpaid in South Florida

Article Courtesy of The Sun Sentinel

By Linda Trischitta

April 6, 2009


On any given day, 2,000 people who buy water from Broward County are late on their bills and face a cutoff in service. They can't rely on compassion to keep taps flowing: Officials say they are bound by debt agreements to turn off the service if bills are unpaid.

"A key premise of [construction] bond covenants is no free water," said Ken Wilson, fiscal manager for Broward County Water and Wastewater Services. "I don't want to turn off anyone's water, but if someone doesn't call or doesn't pay, the other customers have to pay. And that isn't fair."

It's a touchy issue during difficult times and utilities officialsaround the countysaid the problem could worsen if the recession continues. To get money owed, utility staffs call customers, hang door tags, print notices on bills and offer payment schedules. 

"There's been a marked increase in how many tags we put out over the last year, between 200 to 300 a week," said Plantation Utilities Director Hank Breitenkam. "To have the water turned off while you're in the shower shampooing isn't a pleasant experience." 

Tamarac is seeing 17 percent more late payers than a year ago, said city spokesman Andy Berns. Of its 19,632 account holders, about 40 are turned off on Tuesdays, Wednesdays or Thursdays.

"We only have personnel to do shut-offs on those days, so if we get someone a few days late, it gives them a few more days to pay," he said.

Natasha Hampton, logistics and quality control officer in Miramar, said an average of 1,080 accounts are turned off each month, but the city avoids doing so on weekends, Thanksgiving and Christmas. 

"We attribute nonpayments to a lot of foreclosures in the city," she said. 

Broward County turned off the water at the 83-unit Blue Lake townhomes in Pompano Beach on March 25 after the association ran up a $8,100 bill. When the community paid $3,750, officials turned the taps back on and granted an extension that will end Wednesday. 

"The county gave us a little bit of breathing space and for that I'm thankful," said Peter Lynch, Blue Lake's association president.

He said neighbors told him they thought it was illegal to turn off the water and some foreign-born mortgage holders didn't grasp that it was mandatory to pay the maintenance fee, which includes utility service.

"It's hard to listen to the stories from people struggling," Lynch said. "Do they pay this [maintenance] or buy food? It's still a month-to-month situation."

Sunrise, which has 63,000 accounts, has "seen a slight, but not significant, increase in our delinquencies," said spokeswoman Kathleen Castro.Customers have 21 days to pay, plus a 24-day grace period. A courtesy notice and phone call warns that taps are about to go dry.

Pompano Beach spokeswoman Sandra King said 116 of the city's 19,000 accounts were scheduled to be shut off April 2.

"They're often the same customers," she said. "Since we bill in arrears, two bills with warning notices means they have approximately 75 days of water usage before we turn off." 

When water in a condo community with master meters is turned off, residents who pay maintenance bills suffer if their neighbors don't keep up.

That almost happened at Deerfield Palms in February, when just 28 of 168 unit owners were current with their maintenance fees. The community owed Deerfield Beach $90,000 for water service. Homeowners temporarily avoided shutoff with a payment plan. 

"Everything seems in control, but I don't know about tomorrow," said homeowner Diela Narrabe. "I'm still here, but still scared for any situation that will come up."

Utilities officials said they do what they can to help those who are struggling. Deerfield has sent workers out at night to reconnect customers that pay late in the day.