I spent much of Wednesday morning sitting in on a meeting of the Study Committee on Investor-owned Water and Wastewater Utility Systems. This legislatively created group met at the Pasco County government center as part of its statewide tour. The Committee was tasked by the 2012 legislature to investigate issues pertaining to utilities that are not owned by governmental entities. Pasco County was but one of the few counties on its stop throughout the state. The listening tour was for committee members to hear concerns of customers serviced by these utilities. The hopeful outcome would be suggestions regarding how state and local governments can better work together to address quality of product and service issues.
Pasco County is no stranger to private utility woes. Listening to the many customers who got up and spoke about problems they are having with Aqua Utilities in particular, reminded me of the days which began nearly 18 years ago when similar complaints were filed by customers of the new defunct Aloha Utilities. As they did then, customers produced bottles and jugs of dirty, smelly water which they presented to the committee members for their perusal. Complaints of poor customer service were also relayed to the committee.
I am not an engineer but I can see black water when it is put before me. I have no doubt the committee, which was made up of state and local officials from various Florida counties, were impressed by the samples of water deemed “potable” but not worthy of even being poured on one’s lawn. Like the long-running nightmare that was Aloha Utilities, I came away from the meeting wondering if the Florida Governmental Utility Authority (FGUA) was not a viable solution to the problems expressed by some very frustrated individuals. The FGUA is the entity that took over troubled Aloha and is in the process of making it work. The ultimate plan for FGUA would be for the county utility department to take it over, thus adding these homes to the county’s already long list of satisfied customers.
Whether FGUA ends up purchasing Aqua or not, only time will tell. However, the customers deserve some measure of relief. I recall that it took Representative Fasano to become the champion of Aloha's customers. He fought Aloha tooth and nail before those customers could receive some relief. Aqua’s fight will probably continue to be a long and costly one. Having witnessed the Aloha battle from the front line, I can offer the encouragement that if the community speaks as one voice there is a chance that your problems may be fixed as well.
The study committee was tasked by the Florida legislature to come back with specific recommendations to deal with problems facing not only Aqua but any investor-owned utility. These proposals will be presented to the legislature in 2013 and may end up the subject of a bill. A customer from Zephyrhills made the point that if a company does not want to meet the standards set forth by Florida than perhaps they should consider moving to another state which may not have such stringent requirements. In any event, the proposals that the committee does eventually present will be a good reflection of the needs of people who live as captive customers of often poorly run companies.
The success of a committee like this demonstrates that there is a role for the legislature and local governments to come together in an attempt to solve a problem. Whatever proposals end up being presented to policymakers in Tallahassee, as long as they are realistic and doable, they should be given consideration and debate. If FGUA, which has a proven track record of repairing distressed utilities, could play a role in the process, even better.
Tallahassee and local governments definitely can work together for the public good. Here is to hoping that customers of investor-owned water and wastewater utilities will be the recipients of good policy in the near future. If the people who took the time to testify are any indication, they definitely need it
If you have any questions about the legislative process, or would like to learn more about a specific topic relating to government, please leave me a comment. I will gladly address your thoughts and concerns in an upcoming blog post.