WASHINGTON -- Customers of one of the largest water utilities in the region are scratching their heads over how they could be paying more for using less.
At a public meeting Wednesday night on a proposed fee increase by the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, rate-payers got a chance to have their say -- and they didn't hold back.
"I'm being penalized for saving water," said Kathy Estes of Gaithersburg.
Germantown resident and WSSC customer Nana Ofei echoed that sentiment.
"First we were told, 'Help us save water. Don't water your flowers, don't wash your cars.' We obeyed. Now we are hearing, 'Oh, you didn't take too much of my water, you've got to pay upm'" Ofei said.
Chris Cullinan, acting chief financial officer with the WSSC, explained that the utility is in the same fix as federal and state governments regarding highway funding: Fuel-efficient cars and conservation-minded drivers have meant less gas is consumed -- but it's the gas tax that funds highway maintenance. Likewise, Cullinan says, WSSC's customers have used less water, resulting in lower revenues -- but the cost of maintaining water and sewer lines hasn't declined. The WSSC is proposing to raise the account maintenance fee (AMF) by $5 per quarter.
Some at the meeting in Rockville said the increase in the maintenance fee isn't the issue: It's the WSSC's 16-tier rate structure with which they have a problem.
Susan LaCourse of Laurel said the rate structure is discriminatory.
"Many WSSC families are paying $14 per thousand [gallons], just because their household is larger. Some customers pay as much as $18, an outrageously high rate by any measure," LaCourse said.
Richard Boltuck of Bethesda, an economist, said the rate structure is "discriminating horrendously against larger families" because, as he explained, depending on usage, a household with a large family can be pushed into higher pricing tiers -- despite using less water per person.
LaCourse insisted that the rate structure should be changed to a flat rate, but the WSSC's Cullinan called that proposal "disruptive." Cullinan said that the only people to benefit under LaCourse's scenario would be those who fall in the middle range of usage.
"Folks who were below that would see their cost per thousand gallons go up significantly; the folks at the higher end would see their cost per thousand gallons go down dramatically."
But Lacourse says that would be a more equitable arrangement in the long run, with everyone paying the same rate based on usage.
The WSSC is a bi-county agency, and their rate requests have to go before County Councils in Prince George's and Montgomery counties when those councils vote on their budgets in May 2015.
A public meeting for Prince George's County rate-payers has been rescheduled to Aug. 12 at 7:30 p.m. in Room 308 of the Prince George's County RMS Building, in Largo.
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