In a typical month, Sandra Collado will spend $60 to $90 on her water bill. But, to her surprise, February’s bill said she owed close to $500.
Collado, who has owned a home in Opa-locka for 40 years, said there have been months when her bill gets into the $100 range, but never higher. Neighbors, according to Collado, have seen similar price spikes in the past.
“I live by myself, I keep all my receipts and it shows that I don’t owe anything to the city,” said Collado, 62, poring over bills dating back to 1993. “So, $500 for what?”
She addressed the City Commission on Wednesday, but the utility troubles, according to city and county officials, are bigger than an abnormally high water bill.
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In a recent letter addressed to the governor’s office in Tallahassee, Miami-Dade County officials said Opa-locka’s water and sewer system infrastructure was in disrepair. “If these infrastructure needs are not promptly addressed,” the letter said, “infiltration problems could pose a health hazard for city residents.”
And, according to Opa-locka Commissioner Terrence Pinder, leaks in the city — in more than 50 miles of water mains and pipes — cost about $2 million a year. As a result, the city plans to replace thousands of faulty water meters that aren’t reporting the leaks.
The county blamed the problem on Opa-locka leaders who deferred funding long-term maintenance projects for undisclosed reasons. But interim city manager David Chiverton said the city’s problems are a mix of mishandled funds and residents who struggle financially, adding a burden to the budget. The city, for example, has more than 4,000 delinquent accounts, with about $1.5 million in unpaid bills and fines.
“A lot of our people are either below poverty level, income limited or on a fixed-income,” Chiverton said. “Leadership plays its factor but it’s the economics of it. We need things that are going to bring our property taxes up.”
Opa-locka buys water from Miami-Dade County. City commissioners voted in February to use a portion of this year’s budget to pay off the delinquent accounts. Chiverton said the commission is exploring new ways to get residents in good standing without having to shut off their water.
For low-income residents, Gail Raad said most people don’t realize the high bills are because of leaks caused by infrastructure problems, not because they used more water. Raad, 59, who has lived in and out poverty in Opa-locka almost her whole life, said avoiding a high bill is all too common, especially when residents — 39 percent of whom live in poverty and make below the city’s average salary of $20,000 — don’t have the money.
“They don’t have the time or the fight,” Raad said, adding that she was once charged $700 for water a few years ago. “And that’s just life.”