FKAA charging for unused metersBy Steve Estes
Local property owners who years ago bought vacant lots throughout the Keys and hoped to some day develop those lots with a vacation home, or a retirement home, or just a home where they could live in peace in Paradise, may find themselves ponying up money for a water bill even if they don’t have water flowing to a tap.
According to Kerry Shelby, deputy director of the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority, beginning March 1, the utility began billing all customers with a water meter installed on a vacant lot, even though the company isn’t providing water to the lot.
“We have instituted a ready to serve water charge for those properties where a meter is installed,” said Shelby. “It is a common practice among water utilities.”
He said the FKAA Board of Directors made the decision to begin charging the fee a couple of years ago, but actual implementation of the plan didn’t occur until March.
“The decision was based on the same rationale as we used for the various wastewater districts. We want to make sure that everyone who has the option to use the system pays for that option,” said Shelby.
He said the charge is the same as the base water charge currently set by the FKAA at $13.27 per month.
“Even if there is no development on the lot, we still have to maintain the meters and read them on a regular basis, all fixed hard costs that the people who would be served if there were taps should share in,” said Shelby.
The new policy also extends to vacant homes.
“If a rental tenant had water and the tenant moves out, the bill reverts to the property owner for the base charge monthly even if the water is cut off,” said Shelby.
He said that the home remains in the ready to serve status, thus the levying of the base charge with no usage.
Homes that are vacant because they are in foreclosure or have been abandoned by the owners or are owned by the bank but have a water meter installed are also being billed the base charge under this program.
“On any given month there are probably 1,000 or so properties that fall into this category,” said Shelby.
He said the utility makes every attempt to determine the correct property owner and will bill the mortgage companies and banks that own various developed properties throughout the Keys.
“Someone owns the property. We bill that person,” said Shelby.
In the case of absentee owners such as banks, mortgage companies or private investors, he said after a certain period of non-payment on the bills the utility will “reach out to those owners” and try to get a settlement of the charges.
If there is no settlement, the utility will file a lien on the property and settle up when the home sells.
Shelby said for those properties where meters are installed but development either isn’t contemplated or might be years down the road, FKAA will remove the meters at no charge to the property owner.
“We will also remove the tap from the street. The fewer places we have where water can get loose due to a break the better for the system,” said Shelby.
Of course, if a property owner decides to remove the meter and tap now and then requires water service at a later date, they will have to pay whatever the current charge is for reinstallation of the tap and meter.
He said this is a good opportunity for the utility to divest itself of unneeded meters.
FKAA notified Monroe County last month that it had several properties which would be charged under this program The county acquired those properties either through outright purchase or as donations for Rate of Growth Ordinance points for folks to build somewhere else, but the water tap and meter had already been installed.
The Board of County Commissioners voted to have the utility remove all of the meters on vacant lands it owns.
“Most of the people affected by this new policy should be aware of it by now, but if anyone has questions, they can contact us and tell them procedures,” said Shelby.
FKAA is also leveling a base wastewater charge for all vacant properties where a water meter is installed.
“We don’t have a huge problem with people tampering with meters, but it does happen. Unless it’s egregious we don’t concern ourselves with it but sometimes a vacant lot owner can get a surprise if that happens. That’s why they should take note of the program,” said Shelby.