Sixty miles west of the ocean, far from the lure of downtownshopping and nightlife, Wayne Gray's resort is attracting thousandsof tourists and bringing national attention to the shores of LakeOkeechobee.
Gray took over in January as operator of the Pahokee Marina, itstiki bar, pool, cabins and campgrounds. The Lake Okeechobee Resort,which Gary leases from the city, is a popular tourism stop foranglers, RV owners and boating enthusiasts.
This summer, Gray helped host a national power boat and personalwatercraft competition on the lake -- drawing positive nationalmedia attention to Palm Beach County and the struggling citiesaround the lake, which suffer some of the highest unemploymentrates in the United States.
But Gray says that high water bills could threaten his ability tokeep the resort afloat. Since January, he said, he has spent morethan $39,000 for water and sewer service. The problem is a monthlyfee the county charges for every meter on a property, regardless ofwhether it is drawing water from the system, he said.
The fees, known as "readiness to serve" charges, are billed to allproperty owners with a county water meter, even if their accountsare closed or inactive.
The charges are designed to help cover the fixed costs of providingwater and sewer service, including maintenance of purificationplants and water lines. The fees range from $26.36 to $232.70 amonth for a house, depending on the size of the water line.
Such fees are collected by many of the area's large utilities,including not just Palm Beach County's Water Utilities Departmentbut also the Boynton Beach Utility Department and the SeacoastUtility Authority, which serves a northeastern section of thecounty.
Without the fees, residents who draw water year-round would be leftfooting the bill for others who turn off their accounts, said RimBishop, Seacoast's executive director.
"Up to 80 percent of water and sewer costs are fixed," Bishop said."If you don't deliver a drop of water or collect a drop of sewer,you still have those costs. ...
"Another way to think of it is like property taxes. You aren'tusing the library, but they don't give you a rebate."
Reducing the meters
When Gray took over the resort, there were more than 120 meters onthe property -- one for every campsite and cabin. Gray paid a flatfee for each meter, even if the water wasn't turned on to thecampground or the cabin.
Gray, 48, who also runs several campgrounds in Central Florida,said he has spent tens of thousands of dollars to reconfigure thewater lines at the resort and reduce the number of meters on theproperty to 40.
Despite the changes, the fees have continued to be a financialburden.
"The way that they structured it, it is completely wrong," Graysaid.
In an email forwarded to county officials this month, Graythreatened to pull out of the marina and shutter the resort becauseof the mounting bills. He backed away from the statement aftermeeting with county utility officials, who offered to waive latefees and are working to find other ways to lower Gray's monthlybills, including installing a single meter.
"I am not going anywhere," Gray said. "Right now, I am just tryingto be sensible. The Glades is a very poor economic area. I amtrying to bring the jewel in the crown, the diamond in the rough,up to where it can be."
County Utilities Director Bevin Beaudet said when Gray took overthe property, he was responsible for paying thousands of dollars infees that were not paid by the city of Pahokee. The county hassince eliminated those charges, Beaudet said.
"We want this marina to succeed," Beaudet said. "We don't want itto be empty. We care about the Glades and we want to see the Gladessucceed."
Landlords seek relief
Pahokee's marina, rebuilt in 2009, is a key part of the city's planto encourage economic development projects. The $12 millionrenovation was funded largely by state and federal grants.
Gray isn't the only business owner taking aim at the monthly fees.Landlords in the Glades, where skyrocketing unemployment andcrumbling infrastructure have made it difficult to luredevelopment, say the fee hurts the area's economy.
"It is like you are being charged for something that is out of yourcontrol," said J.P. Sasser, the former mayor of Pahokee. "If youare an apartment owner and you have empty apartments, you arealready financially suffering. Then you have to pay for water thatyou are not using. It is absolutely killing us."
Richard Keen, who owns a mobile home park in the Glades, said thatlandlords have to pass those costs on to their tenants, many ofwhom are already struggling. Keen said he owes $20,000 in waterbills for closed accounts at his mobile home park.
"They expect me to pay for using a water meter that is sittingthere not even being used," Keen said. "I call it legalizedthievery.
"You can't continue to pay this kind of ridiculous stuff withoutpassing it on to your tenants."
County water utility officials have been meeting with landlords inthe Glades and are working to help reduce bills and late charges,said Assistant County Administrator Shannon LaRocque, who overseesthe county's utility department.
Eliminating the fee would require a 3 percent rate increase for allcounty utility customers, according to the county, which onlyrecently took control of water and sewer service in the Glades.
The Glades Utility Authority, which was responsible for providingwater and sewer service in Belle Glade, South Bay and Pahokee, wasdissolved this year, leaving the county's utility department incharge.
Under the Glades authority, the readiness-to-serve charges weremuch higher, ranging from to $37.90 to $371.42 for a single- familyhome. Many landlords say they have accrued big balances and latefees.
"We are reconciling every single account," LaRocque said. "We areeliminating past-due balances."
firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @sorentruepbp
A service of YellowBrix, Inc.