A public works employee doing a routine check at the Villages of Glen Creek, a housing development in east Bradenton, noticed something unusual.
“He discovered it by fluke,” said Jim McLellan, public works director. “The guy was driving through the development and noticed one of the water meters sitting too far above ground. He stopped and noticed that it’s not one of our meters, so someone is going around putting in meters that are not ours. He did a quick search and found another, so I have asked our guys to do a full inventory.”
The water meters turned out to be missing from the city of Tampa. McLellan said if a meter is being used that does not belong to the city, it will allow water to flow, but it won’t register how much is being used for billing purposes. Construction workers who tie into city services for construction purposes must pay for the water being used.
“It’s basically a way to get free water for workers to use for whatever they need water for,” McLellan said. “It’s technically theft of services, which is a crime.”
Contractors recently found themselves in trouble with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection for an improper grading issue that was causing excessive drainage of sediment into Glen Creek. The issue was corrected and no further action was taken.
McLellan said he contacted the city of Tampa, which confirmed the meters were missing from their inventory.
Chuck Weber, Tampa water department director, said he had not yet been able to verify the missing meters were his as of Thursday, but doesn’t doubt the city of Bradenton has spoken to someone at this point.
“The assumption is that the meters were taken while working on a job in Tampa,” McLellan said. “It happens a little more often than anyone would like. You do get these shrewd contractors who hook up to use free water but ultimately, once they are caught, they pay a much bigger fine than the actual water they use.”
That fine is $500 and the city is opting to use its code enforcement department to enforce the situation, rather than filing criminal charges.
Weber said it’s the first time he’s heard of his department’s water meters showing up on a work site in another city.
“It’s not typical for me,” Weber said. “This is the first time — and I’ve been here for many years — that I’ve heard about something like this. Certainly if someone is stealing our meters, and it’s certainly possible that some unscrupulous contractor could, we would want to pursue that to make sure we put an end to it.”
Contractors and representatives of the development team were called to meet with city officials following the discovery. McLellan said at first they tried to say the city was obstructing their ability to do their jobs, but that argument didn’t go over well.
“There was a lot of finger pointing and in the end, the only direction to point their fingers was back at themselves,” said Carl Callahan, city administrator.
Approved for 1,300 homes on 229 acres of a former citrus grove in east Bradenton near Mixon Fruit Farm, it’s one of the largest housing developments underway, coverings property in both the city of Bradenton and Manatee County.
Last year, the development drew a chorus of outrage from residents of a nearby mobile home community who said flooding had intensified since construction began.
The project got the green light in 2014 after almost 15 years of planning. The Great Recession delayed the start of construction, which has been ongoing. There are multiple home builders involved in the project and though the contractor’s company name was not immediately available, the company was working for DR Horton.
McLellan did say that the ultimate responsibility belongs to the site construction manager, who denied knowledge, but he was fined for the incident.