Pinellas County Water Conservation Compliance officers investigate citizens’ complaints of watering violations, including watering on the wrong date or time, as well as reports of water wasting due to broken sprinkler heads.
CLEARWATER – Pinellas County Commissioners set aside a portion of public meetings for citizen’s comments, which can be on a variety of subjects.
At two meetings in August, several citizens wanted to talk about their fine for water violations.
The main complaint from those one-time violators was lack of notice and the steep price of the fine, $193. They wanted to know why they didn’t receive a warning.
Staff said it followed rules set by Southwest Florida Management District and had no choice in how violations are issued.
The answer didn’t set well with the citizens or some commissioners.
Terrie Grace, Pinellas County Water Conservation Compliance supervisor, detailed the process of enforcing water restrictions rules during the Sept. 6 commission meeting. She provided an overview of events after SWFWMD’s executive director issued a water shortage emergency declaration May 9. Water restrictions went into effect immediately.
The modified Phase II Severe Water Shortage Order reduced outside watering from two-days a week to only one, and the watering schedule – the allowed day to water – changed. Watering was restricted to the hours before 8 a.m. and after 6 p.m.
The fine for violations is $193 and can increase to $500 for repeat offenders upon the discretion of the courts. During emergency orders, county compliance officers have no choice but to write citations without giving a warning, according to Swiftmud’s rules.
Pinellas County Code aligns with the state’s code, Grace said.
“It’s not different in any way,” she said.
She described the three-part process her department uses to track potential violations. Enforcement typically begins with a citizen complaint. Citizens can call a hotline number and leave a voice mail about water violations 24/7 or they can call customer service during regular business hours.
Notice of the complaint is sent the Utilities customer and a notification is sent to compliance officers to patrol the area for 60 days. If no violations are observed and if there are no additional complaints, the case is closed.
Compliance officers who observe violations make sure there are no exceptions in place for the property, Grace said. For example, mixed addresses, shared irrigation sources, installation of new sod and landscape or chemical applications.
Confirmed violations are entered into the computer system. A notice of ordinance violation is printed and left on the door of the residence, left with the customer or mailed to the billing address.
“Sometimes the violation is observed and ticket issued at 2 o’clock in the morning. We don’t knock on the door,” Grace said.
She reported that her department has a 99.5 percent accuracy rate.
“We’re proud of the work we do,” she said. “We’re accurate, cost effective and innovative.”
She explained that the events of May 9 differed from the normal process by which Swiftmud issues emergency water restriction orders because it was an executive order. When an order is issued by the Swiftmud Board, it usually as an effective date in the future, she said.
“This one was effective the minute it was signed (May 9),” Grace told the commission.
Citizens had 14 days to make the required changes before risking a fine for violations.
Commissioner Ken Welch asked Grace how the change was communicated to customers. Several citizens who received fines complained about lack of notice.
Grace said local newspapers, TV and radio stations and online news sources ran stories about drought conditions and new restrictions. Swiftmud and Utilities put out news releases. Utilities updated its web page with the new watering schedule on May 10. Swiftmud ran an ad in the Tampa Tribune.
Commissioner Norm Roche questioned the requirement to write citations in lieu of giving warnings. He said the language of the emergency order doesn’t seem to be a requirement for citations without warnings.
Staff said in a report to the Commission that the modified Phase II Severe Emergency Water Shortage declaration, effective May 9 through July 31, “began immediately and required water utilities and other local enforcement agencies to issue a citation, without needing to first issue a warning, in response to a witnessed violation occurring more than 14 days after the declaration.”
“I don’t see where it says we can’t,” Roche said. “That just says we don’t have to.”
County Attorney Jim Bennett said the long-standing interpretation of Swiftmud’s rules is that the emergency declaration puts a “prohibition on warnings.” He said he would contact Swiftmud and get clarification.
Bostock agreed with Roche saying she didn’t think the county was “legally bound” to issue citations without warnings.
“The lack of notice concerns me,” she said.
David Scott, executive director of the Department of Environment and Infrastructure, said staff was “looking at every way we can to communication with citizens.”
“With only 14 days and our billing cycle (every-other month), we can’t do it (though bills),” he said. “In an emergency, we have a limited number of opportunities.”
The commission conceded it would prefer some flexibility in how citations could be issued.
Bennett said the county had “no intent to break the law.”
“I’ll find out the law,” he said. “I’ll start making phone calls in the morning.”
Meanwhile, Grace will continue to explore alternatives to notifying the public about changes in water restrictions. She said one suggestion was to send out email to customers who provide one.
She said the county’s Communications Department advised her that they could usually send out an email within an hour to two days, depending on the situation.