April 4, 2009

Water, sewer not turned off just because of no valid ID, Immokalee official says 


IMMOKALEE — Anyone who starts water and sewer service or wants to disconnect that service in Immokalee now must show a government-issued ID.

And that’s it.

Allegations that water and sewer customers had their service turned off because they couldn’t show a valid U.S. identification are simply untrue, Eva Deyo, executive director of the Immokalee Water and Sewer District, said Friday.

A story in Friday’s Daily News may have led readers to the conclusion that customers were being randomly asked for legal ID and having water and sewer service turned off if they didn’t produce it.

Not so, Deyo said.

Deyo said there were two cases Friday in which customers wanted service turned off but the agency refused because the person couldn’t produce a valid ID.

“One of them was my son, and I would not turn his water off (just at his request),” Deyo said, pointing out that he didn’t have a valid ID with him. “I can’t make an exception for him if I can’t make one for anyone else.”

Six Immokalee families contend otherwise, according to their attorney and a community activist.

Sister Maureen Kelleher, managing attorney for Legal Aid Service of Collier County, has taken up the cause for the farmworker families who allege that they had water and sewer services and lost them, according to Catholic Charities caseworker Jim Kean and other community leaders.

Kean and other community activists contend it’s because those families couldn’t produce a government-issued ID.

When asked whether the six families’ service was shut off because of nonpayment, Deyo said that’s possible.

One family of six who refused to be identified in any way said they went into subsidized farmworker housing Feb. 14. On March 5, they contend, Immokalee Water and Sewer turned off water and sewer for the family and locked the underground utility meter.

The father couldn’t produce a U.S. government issued ID, although he had a passport from a Central American country.

Deyo said her agency began locking meters as a policy because new customers would start using the water without properly registering with Immokalee Water and Sewer.

“We just turned the water off without putting a lock on it,” Deyo said of the former policy. “Obviously, people were coming in and physically turning the water on without coming in to do the paperwork.”

The six families without water and sewer service have been relying on the kindness of neighbors in their complex, using neighbors’ toilets and bath tubs, said Kean, a volunteer Catholic Charities caseworker who e-mailed Collier County Commissioner Jim Coletta asking for help Thursday.

In October, the Immokalee Water and Sewer board of directors unanimously approved a policy that required new customers to show a government-issued ID when starting up service. That policy has been in place and enforced since October, Deyo said.

The agency board in November adopted another policy in reaction to Federal Trade Commission regulations to remedy rampant national identity theft issues.

“After that policy went into effect, if someone showed us a fake ID, we could not give the ID back. We had to keep it and call the Sheriff’s Department,” she said. “It’s like counterfeit money. You can’t give that back either to the customer. You have to notify authorities.”

Kelleher, a member of the board of directors of Immokalee Nonprofit Housing Inc. and Florida Nonprofit Services, said she doesn’t believe that the Federal Trade Commission regulation should be narrowly construed.

“Part of the actual advice to creditors (was) they could look to banks as to what (banks) are doing, and banks accept foreign government photo IDs,” Kelleher said.

Immokalee Water and Sewer is “overreaching to the nth degree,” Kelleher said Friday.

Kelleher said she understands that the water company is under the gun to come out with a policy on security checks.

Deyo said it’s just good business policy to be more diligent in checking IDs because property owners often were left with bills from tenants they didn’t even know were living there.

“It’s not like we target to see if a customer is legal or not legal,” she said.

All water and sewer board members are volunteers and receive no compensation, Deyo noted.

“They’re community leaders,” she said. “It’s not like they’re trying to hurt the community.”

Asked if it was constitutional to turn off someone’s water because he or she couldn’t provide U.S. government-issued ID, Kelleher would only say this: “There are legal theories that are clearly at play (but) I believe the water companies and employees will come around to seeing the FTC rules are not so Draconian.”

In a Friday e-mail to Coletta, Deyo wrote that the water district “is not going out and turning off the water, or terminating services for existing customers. ...

“We are requiring valid U.S. government issued photo identification to turn on new services,” Deyo wrote.

Olga Hernandez, who is program director for Immokalee Multicultural Multipurpose Community Action Agency, said: “America needs to wake up.”

“I’ve never seen it this bad,” Hernandez said, noting that there is clearly discrimination at play, and it’s never been so extreme in Immokalee.

Hernandez has been working in the agricultural community for some 40 years.

Deyo told Coletta in her e-mail that the district is working with the community, including Adan Labra, an organizer with the Farmworker Association of Florida.

Labra, however, said in Spanish on Friday that denying water to immigrants is a human rights abuse.

Labra, who has been with the organization in Immokalee for five years, said in Spanish that the recent action “without a doubt” was targeting illegal immigrants, which continues to grow throughout the country.

“It’s wrong,” Labra said in Spanish. “I think that water is a natural resource that should not be denied.”

Labra also was concerned about children, who are American citizens, being at risk of getting sick because they didn’t have water or were carrying it in bottles from a friend’s house.

Coletta asked the Daily News to retract the comments he made Thursday, saying he was reacting to what he now calls false information he received from Kean at Catholic Charities and the Daily News.

He called on the Daily News to retract false statements and issue a clarification.

“My apologies to any and all offended parties for comments that I made based on erroneous information given to me,” he said in the e-mail.

Later Friday afternoon, he said: “The information that I got that I acted on was less than complete.”