Proposed rates could mean higher water, sewer bills

March 06, 1994|By Phyllis Brill | Phyllis Brill,Sun Staff Writer

County officials were preaching conservation when they outlined proposed new water and sewer rates that could increase customers' bills an average of 10 percent. The new rate structure, which officials discussed at a public hearing before the County Council on Tuesday night, could take effect as early as June 1.

"Water is not an unending commodity," said Harford County Treasurer James Jewell, "and it's not getting cheaper."

The new rate structure would eliminate the minimum-use charge that is built into the system's base rate and would set charges based on consumption.

Usage rates would increase 9 cents for water and 9 cents for sewerage, to $1.74 per thousand gallons of water used and $2.19 per thousand gallons of sewer service.

In addition, customers would continue to be charged a base rate to cover fixed operating costs. But that rate, which previously included a usage allowance of 6,000 gallons a quarter, would drop from $30.40 to $12.23 a quarter for customers with both water and sewerage service.

Mr. Jewell said the percentage increase in cost to customers will vary widely, depending on how much water they use. He said those households that use less than 4,000 gallons a quarter will see their bills go down.

Mr. Jewell said the conservation model, developed by engineering consultants Whitman, Requardt and Associates, assumes the average person uses 47 gallons of water a day. The average Harford household -- or billed customer -- uses 16,000 gallons of water a quarter, he said.

According to the computer model, the quarterly water and sewer bill for such a household will increase from $67.90 a quarter to $75.11, just more than 10 percent.

To further encourage conservation, officials say, the surcharge for "excess usage" will also rise 10 percent. The higher rates -- $2.25 per thousand gallons for water and $2.75 for sewer service -- would apply to usage over 32,000 gallons a quarter.

Jack Gillette, who coordinated the rate plan for Whitman, Requardt, told the council that without the rate increase, the county would run a deficit of $297,000 in fiscal 1994. Even if the bill passes and the new rates take effect in June, the county still faces a $250,000 deficit, he said.

Mr. Jewell conceded that this will not be the last time the county asks for a rate increase in the '90s, noting that residents do not pay just for the water they use but also for the operating costs of the water and sewer system.

He said computer projections suggest potential rate increases of 12 percent in 1996, 9 percent in 1997 and 5 percent in 1998 to bring the Water and Sewer Fund back into the black.

Those projections were based on an expected 1,300 new residential customers a year as well as increased operating costs at the Sod Run sewage treatment plant and the water treatment facility due to open in Abingdon this summer.

Not all members of the County Council, which turned down a 9 percent across-the-board water and sewer increase in June, are sold on the conservation-based rate structure.

Theresa Pierno, a District C Democrat, fears the restructuring discriminates against large families, because of the increased penalty to households using more than 32,000 gallons a quarter.

But Mr. Jewell said only 4 percent to 5 percent of Harford's 25,000 customers are in the "excess charge range."

Mrs. Pierno also feared that the county's projected rate increases through the '90s might price some residents out of the county.

"With the last increases [water rates increased 26 percent and sewerage rates 22 percent in 1992] and the projected ones, we're looking at a 100 percent increase in eight years," she said. "Are we reaching the point where we'll price a system outside of what our constituents can afford?"

She said she does not plan to vote for any more rate increases until the county does a cost analysis of water and sewerage use.

But Mr. Jewell said the proposed rate structure will generate more revenue than across-the-board increases of the past because it promotes conservation, "and the more people conserve, the less we need to expand the system."

The council must vote on the bill by April 5.

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