City planning 9% jump in water rates

Increase to have trickle-down effect in suburban counties

Balto. Co. users may see 10% rise

Federally ordered repairs, homeland security among cost factors

April 23, 2003|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

The region's drought may be over, but don't be so quick to water the lawn or wash the fleet. Water bills, like the city's three reservoirs, are on the rise.

The city's Board of Estimates is set to vote today to raise water and sewer rates for the sixth time in eight years, a boost in bills that will hit Baltimore County hardest.

The board, which sets the city's fiscal policy, is expected to approve a 9 percent increase in what the city charges for water and sewer services to its residents and businesses and to Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll and Howard counties. Harford County's rates will not change because of a long-term contract with the city.

Although surrounding county governments will incur 9 percent increases from the city, only elected officials in those jurisdictions can establish new rates for their users.

The rate increase, which would take effect tomorrow, would mean an annual $564 water and sewer bill for a family of four living in the city, $46 more than what they pay now.

Baltimore County, which buys 33.81 billion gallons of water from the city, plans to pass along its increased costs to residents by raising rates 10 percent. That would mean an annual water and sewer bill of $514 for typical households of four, almost $47 more than what they currently pay.

"We've asked for a 10 percent rate increase for all bills that go out after June 30," said Stephen Hinkel, management assistant for the county's director of public works. "Based on our own estimates, we need a 10 percent rate increase to fund our share of operations next year."

Carroll County's comptroller, Gene Curfman, said the county commissioners have not discussed raising rates. Carroll County buys 780 million gallons of untreated water from the city at wholesale prices, but, unlike Harford County, its rates are not fixed and will be subject to change.

Last year, after the city increased water rates by 16 percent and sewer rates by 10 percent, Carroll County did not raise rates in response. But, Curfman added, "It's not something the county is going to be able to eat next year."

A 9 percent increase next year would translate into an annual bill of $272 for a typical family of four, an increase of $22.

In Anne Arundel County, only 2,300 households are served directly by the city's water and sewer services. The annual rates for a typical family of four will increase by nearly $18. The majority of residents purchase water from Anne Arundel and will see minimal increases next year.

Howard County rates will increase, said James Irvin, Howard County's director of public works.

For five years, the county has absorbed each of the city's rate increases. To offset increasing costs to buy water and sewer services, Howard County began treating some wastewater at its treatment facilities.

"We've run out of that option," Irvin said. "We've run out of spare capacity so we're sending more wastewater back to the city to be treated."

For a typical family of four in Howard County, the rates would increase annually by $30. But Irvin said he expects significant increases to continue for the next several years. "The consent decree is hitting everyone," Irvin said referring to government-ordered improvements to the city's sewerage system.

The higher rates are necessary to cover increasing costs of repairs to the century-old system that were demanded last year by federal and state regulators. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Justice Department joined state regulators and threatened to file a lawsuit unless the city fixed the problems to its sewerage system. The city's water system serves 1.8 million users and the sewerage system serves 1.6 million.

"The basis for the rate increase is driven by the consent decree, homeland security, increased operating costs and capital improvements," said Baltimore City Public Works Director George Winfield.

Winfield said city rates remain some of the lowest along the East Coast. The rate increase would have been 14 percent if the Public Works Department had not implemented a series of cost-saving measures including deferred vehicle purchases and eliminating overtime pay for meter readers.

Rates will continue to increase each year for the next three years, but at a pace that should not exceed single digits, Winfield said.

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