After Ian, North Port residents face exorbitant utility fees. City leaders want to change that
North Port officials say residents who want to temporarily discontinue services could face a $27,000 reconnection fee.
In North Port, some mobile home residents who are rebuilding after Hurricane Ian are faced with a choice: pay $55 for continued water and sewage service or pay a $77 disconnection fee and incur a $27,000 bill for future reconnection.
Utilities director Nancy Gallinaro said this is an oversight of the city's current service utility code. But city leaders have plans to rectify it.
"We have to help people through a catastrophic event like this," Gallinaro said. "I suspect, in many cases, [this] was not factored into new codes."
The current city regulations governing water and wastewater rates, last updated in October 2022, require a $55.95 monthly base-rate fee. To connect a new account to the city's central services, other one-time fees include a: capacity fee ($4,000), meter installation charge ($1,000), water extension charge ($7,500) and sewer extension charge ($15,000).
While that's standard cost to extend water and wastewater capacity to new construction, assistant utilities director Jennifer Desrosiers said that same fee schedule shouldn't apply to preexisting North Port customers who have lost their homes during a major storm.
"Part of our code says that when you want to reconnect — you will pay capacity fees, meter fees and it would be considered a new account," Desrosiers said.
During a city commission meeting on Nov. 8, leadership asked staff to research an exemption that would allow Ian survivors to waive exorbitant line extension fees for water and sewage services.
The item was brought by Debbie McDowell, who represents North Port's District 3.
"There's nothing there to service," McDowell said, describing the aftermath of Ian on Holiday Park, a retirement community with 540 mobile home sites.
"Why in the world are we stating that existing service is new service?" asked District 5 Commissioner Jill Luke, which borders Holiday Park. "We need to make this right."
With the added request for quick action by City Manager Jerome Fletcher, city leadership agreed to consider and codify new rules to better reflect the body's intentions with utility service charges, which is to help offset the costs of migrating North Port residents from septic tanks and wells to the city's sewage and water services.
North Port Assistant City Manager Jason Yarborough was in agreement but said there's "legal tentacles" that must be addressed, paying particularly attention to committed utility rates and preserving the integrity of existing bond agreements.
On Thursday, Gallinaro said city leadership plans to propose a solution to commissioners in the coming weeks.
"We do feel confident that we have a good plan to move forward," Gallinaro said. "We just really can't share it now."
Gabriella Paul covers the stories of people living paycheck to paycheck in the greater Tampa Bay region for WUSF. She's also a Report for America corps member. Here’s how you can share your story with her.