Fairness of water billing debated

Tenants say they pay more than their share

`Something doesn't add up'

Landlords say estimates promote conservation

Howard County

October 01, 2002|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

While landlords and billing companies pointed to estimated water bills as a conservation tool at a public hearing last night, a group of Howard County residents and a state senator called such practices unfair.

The sharply opposing views were offered during the third of four hearings held by an advisory board appointed by the Howard County Council to assess whether unmetered water bills should be regulated in Howard.

At least 20 Howard apartment complexes use the practice, commonly known as a ratio utility billing system, or RUBS.

Some tenants in those complexes complain that they pay more than $40 a month for their water and sewer service, more than is paid by many families of four living in detached homes.

"A number of my constituents are paying more than a single family [living in a home]. Something doesn't add up," said state Sen. Sandra B. Schrader, a Republican who represents the 13th legislative district in the county.

The board is supposed to make a recommendation to the County Council by Dec. 1 on what to do about RUBS.

Instead of including the cost of water in the rent or having meters installed that keep track of their tenants' exact usage, landlords who use RUBS pay a portion of the total water bill of the complex and then have a billing company collect the rest from tenants.

Tenant bills are estimated, using formulas that depend on variables such as the number of people, square footage or the number of bedrooms in an apartment. The bills often include a monthly service charge of about $3.

The practice has been regulated or banned in some localities, including Texas and Dade County in Florida.

Michelle Curley, who lives in Fenland Fields Apartments on Harpers Farm Road in Harper's Choice, told the board last night that she pays about $32 a month for water and sewer service. Curley, who said she is a single mother with five children, testified that her family is rarely at home during the day and does not use much water.

Curley said the rent for her three-bedroom apartment is about $960 a month and that the water-sewer bill is a financial burden. "Thirty-two dollars is a lot of money for us. ... That's a meal for my family," she said.

Landlords and billing companies acknowledged last night that RUBS is not perfect, but they said that the estimated bills generally lead to water conservation because residents begin to consider how much water they use once they have to pay for it.

Such conservation is especially critical during a drought, RUBS advocates said.

"There is a better opportunity for people to realize there is a partnership and to conserve," said Falise J. Platt, executive vice president and general counsel for American Utility Management, a trade group in Hillside, Ill.

National Water and Power, a company that administers the RUBS at 17 Howard County properties, said its Howard tenants have reduced their water use by nearly 34 million gallons of water a year since RUBS billing systems were imposed.

Consumer advocates have criticized such conservation estimates as unsupported by available data.

The last public hearing on the issue will be held at 7 p.m. Oct. 15 at the Howard County Police Department's Southern District, 11226 Scaggsville Road.

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