MARCO ISLAND — A swirl of skepticism is surrounding three known facts on Marco Island — There is a shortage of money in the water utility; there is a history of low water pressure in some areas of the Island, and increasing the water pressure will increase Marco customers’ bills.
Despite attempts by Utility Director Rony Joel and City Manager Steve Thompson to answer the question of whether the utility increased water pressure to increase income, Chairman Rob Popoff said Thursday evening he doesn’t feel completely confident with the answers thus far.
“Let’s just say, based on the individuals I’ve talked to, including even the employees, I’m not confident it wasn’t done on purpose to bring more money into the utility,” Popoff said.
Thompson says that proving a negative, or proving motive, was next to impossible.
Four senior staff members in the utility, including Joel, were reprimanded this week for their lack of communication during water pressure changes. Those changes began in the summer, but the public was not appropriately informed about how it might affect them, Thompson acknowledged. Reprimand included several days of docked pay, city leaders reported.
“These are people with a lot of experience, they should know what to anticipate ... It was a team and that’s why innocent and wicked alike suffered,” Thompson said.
Water pressure needed to be increased and increasing pressure would bring in more money, but revenue was not the reason, he added.
“It was an appropriate response to a low pressure problem.”
Furthermore, data on income to the utility does not indicate that water pressure was the cause for significant revenue increases, rather usage fluctuated more based on rainfall, Thompson reported.
Popoff, however, said council will be pursuing the issue further.
“We will get to the bottom of this. When I see individuals who have never been politically aligned gathering together ... This has the makings of something more volatile than the STRP, if this is not handled and explained properly, if we find out this was done for revenue purposes.”
Consulting firm Black and Veatch Engineering was hired by the city in 2008 to assist in project planning and water pressure issues and consultant Bobby Burchett of the firm verified to council Tuesday that water pressure increases were needed to meet minimum state requirements and fire suppression demands.
“I want to ensure council that, in spite of what has been said, we have not increased the water pressure to sell water,” Joel said.
Burchett confirmed that he had first-hand knowledge of the water pressure falling below the state’s 20 PSI (pounds per square inch) minimum requirement in 14 locations on the Island, including the Estates area.
The highest demand is between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m. due to irrigation and that’s part of the reason for needing to increase the pressure at the plant at night, Thompson said.
Customers could save money by avoiding watering during those times, he added.
The increased water pressure increased bills in some isolated areas by about $2 to $4 per month, Thompson reported.
This increase is on properties close to the plant that water at the peak times, but most customers won’t see an increase due to water pressure, he added.
Some residents and sprinkler companies have said the increased water pressure is a blessing, rather than a problem.
“I am thrilled we have water now because I was concerned if anyone’s house caught fire, we were screwed,” said Debbie Roddy of the Estates area of the Island.
Marco resident Tarik Ayasun, whose December bill doubled from his average bill, was an extreme case that came with a multitude of contributing factors, not just water pressure increases at the plant, city officials said.
Councilman Jerry Gibson questioned why there were reports from residents who said their water pressure was higher than the maximum 86 PSI pressure that Joel reported at the plant.
“When you leave the plant at 80 pounds there is no way in Newton’s Laws of physics that it can go higher.”
Joel later added that condos do use devices, booster pumps, to increase pressure in their properties. Condos are not seeing any bill increases, Thompson said.
Gibson asked about mechanisms to install to lower the pressure.
Back flow preventers, which cost about $275, will decrease water pressure by 10 PSI, but some will find they lower the water pressure too much, possibly not even allowing a toilet to be flushed, Joel said.
Utility committee member Amadeo Petricca proposed splitting the irrigation times for different areas of the Island. Currently morning watering is allowed from 4 a.m. to 8 a.m.
Projects planned in the next four years will allow water pressure at the plant to be brought back down to an average range of 70 to 72 PSI, down from the current range of 78 to 80 PSI.
Projects include new pipeline leaving the south water plant, a new water tank at that plant, and pipeline upgrades in the 14 areas identified in the consultant’s report.
The projects will cost $3.5 million over a four-year period in conjunction with the south water tank project that should be on line by mid 2011, Joel said.
“We now have a defined issue and a defined solution.”