On Proposed CBU Wastewater Increases

12 Dec

City of Bloomington Utilities is considering a 53% increase in wastewater (sewer) rates. The Herald Times wrote about this proposal here and editorialized against it here (unfortunately both articles are behind the HT paywall).

While I agree that raising rates some is inevitable in this case (and in the previous increase in the water utility as well), and that investment in utility infrastructure is critical, the Utilities Service Board (USB), which is the governing board for the utility, should make some policy changes first before raising rates. Here is a guest column that I wrote (but wound up not submitting) back in 2007 when the water rate increase was first being discussed. In it I recommend a couple of policy changes: water hook-on fee increase, conservation pricing, public relations campaign with the City’s wholesale customers (over 35% of CBU’s water usage is by customers of another utility that purchases water wholesale), and the elimination of the Summer Sewer Average (SSA) billing practice.  The first three of these suggestions are relevant to the water rate increase issue (by law, the water and wastewater utilities are run as separate businesses), but the SSA applies both to water and wastewater.

The SSA should be eliminated. The SSA is where residential customers are charged a wastewater bill based on their spring water use average during the summer months, rather than their actual water use. The theory is that the extra water used during the summer is for irrigation (lawn sprinkling, gardening, car washing) and therefore also doesn’t go down the sanitary sewer. But not only is this policy ripe for abuse (swimming pool filling could be subsidized, even though that water does go down the sewer), but it discourages conservation in exactly the areas in which much of the water use is discretionary (car washing, anyone?).

We should be encouraging the use of rain barrels and other low-water waste gardening practices. Urban farmers or others who really do have a need for significant amounts of water during the summer can get an irrigation meter, which measures the water that doesn’t go down the sewer. We certainly don’t need to be subsidizing swimming pools or car washing, though.

The USB should first eliminate the SSA before raising wastewater rates.

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