Tampa City Council member Luis Viera has always enjoyed scheduling community meetings in his District 7, which includes the City of Tampa communities in New Tampa.
Sometimes, Viera meets for a cup of coffee, or in a clubhouse meeting room or even at someone’s home. He says his favorite form has been the local townhall meeting, of which he has hosted a handful in New Tampa alone.
However, Covid-19 has changed all that, forcing Viera to, well, take it to the streets…or yard…or cul-de-sac.
His latest stop was to address the concerns of his constituents in Arbor Greene, where about a dozen residents met with Viera on a perfectly manicured patch of grass beneath strung lights behind the Community Clubhouse’s tennis courts.
Their primary complaint? Water bills they say that spike for a month for no reason and then return to normal.
As he usually does when attending this new brand of community get-together, Viera brought with him a police officer — who thankfully had no salacious crime stories to share but reminded everyone to lock their car doors because some areas in New Tampa have seen a recent rash of burglaries — as well as four employees of the city’s water department.
“I’ve been hearing a lot about the water bills in Arbor Greene for a year now, and it’s hard to say anything without doing an analysis of the bills,’’ Viera said. “So, I brought along some people who could. This meeting was about making those connections.”
None of the residents with a water bill beef got exactly the answers they wanted to questions like this one:
“How was my water bill $307 in December when we weren’t even home for two weeks, and then back to $69 the following month?” (Not to mention the few days in early December the city had a water boil notice that kept the spigots at home mostly turned off).
Eli Franco, a spokesman for the City of Tampa Water Department, said mistakes are sometime made, but so rarely, the chances are that the bills reflect a leak somewhere, or an issue with a running toilet or an irrigation system.
“We read 140,000 meters a month,” Franco told the Arbor Greene residents, “and our error rate is less than one half of one percent.”
Franco said anything outside a normal meter reading is read a second time, and then a third time. Then, a picture is taken and sent to billing to see if there might be an explanation.
Franco said the city does work with residents if there is a problem with a running toilet or potential leak. He says the city has one of the most generous leak adjustment policies in the country.
“We want to make sure you’re getting a fair bill,” he said.
However, residents like Frank Burke, who has lived in Arbor Greene for 23 years, said leaks or running toilets don’t explain how his bill went from $68 to $160 before going back down, without any leak or toilet repairs at his home.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” he said.
Burke is one of dozens of Arbor Greene residents who have experienced what they say are unusually high water bills. Burke says his wife has seen plenty of complaints on Facebook, while others have taken to social media sites like NextDoor to complain.
Viera said the goal of the meeting was to put Arbor Greene residents in touch with the right people to help and, to that end, his aide Brannon Lazo took names and handed out business cards to make sure the concerns were addressed by the right people.
“We’re in the middle of a pandemic and a lot of people are frustrated,” Viera said. “As an elected official, we should be there to take the heat, catch the questions and find some answers.”
While he still prefers his townhalls, Viera started his outdoor tour in October, and the stops have included Forest Hills and the Busch Blvd. area of North Tampa, which also are in his district, a meeting in a cul-de-sac in the Tuscany community in Tampa Palms over concerns about new apartments, a meeting with residents of the Promenade Apartments in Tampa Palms about crime, and the Arbor Greene meeting.