Water rates would rise

Bill to be introduced Monday would boost fees in warmer months

`Environmentally sensitive'

The move reflects 19% increase the city plans to charge

March 28, 2000|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Facing higher water costs and the forecast of another hot, dry summer, Howard County officials want to adopt Maryland's first seasonally variable water rates to encourage residents to use less.

Under a bill scheduled for introduction at a County Council meeting Monday, the Robey administration seeks the power to increase rates for Baltimore-supplied water -- but only during warmer months.

Because the metropolitan water and sewer system must be self-supporting by law, and Baltimore is planning a 19 percent rate increase starting July 1, Howard County would run up a $1.8 million deficit if nothing is changed, County Executive James N. Robey said.

"No matter how we figure it, our rates must rise in order to pay for the water we are providing. By changing to a volumetric system, we are taking an environmentally sensitive approach," Robey said.

A seasonal rate increase would not be high enough to force reductions in water use, but it would serve as "a memory trigger" that water is scarce and should be conserved, said Robert M. Beringer, county chief of the Bureau of Utilities.

Water and sewer bills are sent quarterly, he said. Among the 54,000 customers countywide, Beringer said, the average user would see a $12.40 increase in each of the two warmer quarters of the year, or $24.80 a year. A family of four would see an average increase of $14.65 a quarter, or $29.30 a year. The exact rates will be included in Robey's budget proposal next month.

At the same time, people who use minimal amounts of water -- such as senior citizens living alone -- may pay slightly less, Beringer said.

James M. Irvin, director of the county Department of Public Works, said Howard wants to avoid what happened last summer, when a lack of rain combined with heavier lawn watering brought the county's water purchases to 32 million gallons a day before Gov. Parris N. Glendening imposed restrictions.

"That's what cost us a ton of money. We were going flat-out," Irvin said. After Glendening's watering restriction was imposed, consumption in Howard dropped to 20 million gallons a day, Beringer said.

No other Maryland jurisdiction uses a seasonal rate system, but it is a more progressive way to approach costs, Irvin said, adding that the manner in which Howard County applies its water and sewer charges has been in place for more than 30 years. The seasonal system is used in Fairfax and Leesburg, Va., as well as in water-conscious places such as Los Angeles and Phoenix, Beringer said.

Howard last changed its rates in 1994, despite two city increases since then. Although council members haven't seen the bill yet, Guy J. Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat and a former Maryland director of the Sierra Club, said "it sounds like a great idea, as long as it [the amount] isn't excessive."

Council Chairwoman Mary C. Lorsung also approved, if it is part of a larger water conservation strategy. "Whatever we can do to get people to conserve water is a good idea," she said.

Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican, said he wondered whether the concept would be effective. "If someone gets a bill in the fall, is that going to affect how much water they use in summer?" he said. "I don't know."

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