ISLAMORADA -- Alicia and Jerry Betancourt have been paying water bills on their unit at the Woods Corner affordable housing complex on north Plantation Key since moving in with their children in September 2008.
But they've never seen a bill like the $2,450 one they received this month. The high price tag wasn't just for a month's worth of water use, of course. It also included a back charge of $2,350 -- the cost of 33 months of service from the Islamorada wastewater utility for which the family of five had never before been billed.
The Betancourts say that paying the bill, even spaced over 24 months as the village of Islamorada has proposed, would be a financial burden.
"We wouldn't qualify for this place if we weren't essentially living paycheck to paycheck," said Alicia Betancourt, who is an agent for the University of Florida extension service office in Key Largo. Husband Jerry is an apprentice lineman for the Florida Keys Electric Cooperative.
The Betancourts are among the residents of 24 homes on north Plantation Key -- all of them built after the sewer plant went online in 2006 -- which went between three and 51 months without being billed for sewer service.
The problem was discovered by the Florida Auditor General's Office last summer during the two months that auditors were encamped in Village Hall.
The village, with the assistance of the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority, which serves as its billing agent, has now begun the process of retrieving those monies.
For the owners of Woods Corner's 16 units, the attempts at catch up could be painful. The back charges, as originally calculated, range from a low of $503 to the Betancourts' $2,350, records show. Nearly all of the bills, however, are for more than $1,000, and several are in the $2,000 range. A calculation error, which the village acknowledged in an email to the Betancourts, will likely bring at least some of those costs down slightly. But even with the adjustment, the Betancourts' back bill amounts to more than $2,000.
In an interview last week, Village Manager Ed Koconis said residents of all 24 properties being charged for back fees will be offered the option of covering the bills over two years. Families with especially difficult circumstances will be given more time, he added.
"They can just contact me and we'll work something out," Koconis said.
In addition, the manager said, the village plans to explore ways to use money the town has set aside for affordable housing to aid Woods Corner owners with the back bills.
Woods Corner resident Kelley Garcia, who owes back charges of approximately $2,000, said a 24-month payment plan would be acceptable for her and husband Juan.
"It's not ideal, but it's a lot better than coming up with $2,000 in a month," Garcia said in her front yard last week, while supervising her two young children and their golden retriever Ranger.
But others say that's not enough.
Both Alicia Betancourt and Marshall Smith, who heads up the Woods Corner Homeowners Association, say that years ago, curious why their bills weren't higher, they went to the FKAA to make sure they were being billed properly. In both cases, the answer was yes, they say.
FKAA Executive Director Kirk Zuelch attributes the problem to miscommunication. Because the village never notified the FKAA that they needed to bill the Woods Corner homes for sewers, employees of the agency believed Smith and Betancourt were being properly charged.
Now that the mistake has been discovered, Smith is asking the village to forgive the back charges entirely.
In an April 13 email to the village, he pointed out that the Key Largo Wastewater Treatment District recently did just that after discovering its own billing errors.
Record show that last year the district failed to charge 726 properties on the south half of the island for their sewer service over periods ranging from five to seven months. In February, at the suggestion of district staff, the Key Largo Wastewater Board allowed those fees, which amounted to $429,000, to be waived.
The back fees the village plans to collect from property owners in Woods Corner and elsewhere in north Plantation Key amount to $39,000.
"Key Largo wastewater realized that they made a mistake and decided that they would do the right thing and not back charge people for their oversight," Smith wrote in the letter. "... I am asking that you help us by doing the same."