The DC Water Board is proposing a small reduction in its Clean Rivers fee. But the News4 I-Team, which has been investigating that fee for nearly a year, found the reduction might actually amount to higher bills for many customers.
If approved, the $2.18 rate drop would be temporary, taking effect in October 2018.
At the same time, DC Water has proposed raising customers' sewer rates by 13 percent — so many customers wouldn't see any break on their bills at all. Plus, the Clean Rivers fee would begin rising again in October 2019, surpassing the current rate and continuing to rise exponentially each year thereafter.
"These are the kinds of increases that are more expected from a loan shark than from a public utility," said Randy Speck, an advisory neighborhood commissioner who addressed the DC Council during recent a DC Water oversight hearing.
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Last year, a News4 I-Team investigation revealed several groups of customers struggling to pay the Clean Rivers Impervious Area Charge. They questioned the fairness of its rate structure, which is based on the square footage of customers' property deemed to create stormwater runoff — basically non-porous sidewalks, driveways, patios and rooftops.
Cemeteries and homeowners associations that have huge impervious areas on their property but little or no sewer usage could really benefit from DC Water's proposed rate change. But a large family with minimal property might be hurt by it.
"We think some of those are merely shifting the cost from one group to another group and wouldn't necessarily solve the problem," said Speck.
Some District residents and non-profits told the I-Team they pay hundreds or thousands of dollars a month just in Clean Rivers fees, due in large part to roads and sidewalks on their property that are deemed "private."
They were particularly disturbed to learn the government is exempt from paying the fee for the miles and miles of public roads, sidewalks and alleys it owns.
DC Water's new general manager could not explain how or why that exemption was granted a decade ago when the fee was enacted.
If the exemption is lifted, DC Water estimates it would bring in an additional $41 million from Washington, D.C. and $5 million from the federal government. That would lower the overall rate for all customers, cutting what everyone else pays by nearly half.
"I would like to explore that again so we have some fairness there," said D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh, who chairs the committee which oversees DC Water.
Cheh also had concerns about the utility's proposed new rate structure and asked the new general manager, Henderson Brown, why his agency would offset a lower Clean Rivers fee by raising sewer rates.
"Is that because certain customers will benefit from one and not the other?" asked Cheh, "It looks like kind of a shell game, you move it around here and there."
"No, it's not a shell game," replied Brown, "It's a reflection of the independent rate consultant's analysis."
Brown added, "The Clean Rivers program is a sewer program, so there are charges obviously attributed to Clean Rivers which should have been attributed to the sewer rate. That's why we had the independent consultant take a look at it."
DC Water actually has a rainy-day fund designed to offset big billing increases; right now it has $61 million in it. But at its last meeting, the board member who suggested using it to help ease customers' bills was outvoted.
"I think it's there for that very purpose. We're going to be right back where we started if we don't do something about this now," DC Water board member David Franco told the I-Team.
The Clean Rivers fees are paying for a $2.7 billion tunnel project designed to keep raw sewage out of our rivers, but everyone from non-profits to neighborhoods are feeling the impact, and it has nothing to do with how much water they use.
Michael Musante, Senior Director of Government Relations for FOCUS, which advocates for the District's public charter schools says the non-profit educational budgets have been hit hard by the rising water bills.
At a recent rally for the DC RIVER Coalition, he told the crowd, "I want to help beat this back for every individual and every family who this lands on their shoulders unfairly."
Musante's group has now united with several other groups of customers featured in the I-Team reports, from churches to cemeteries to homeowners.
"I'm here to tell you not on my watch, and not on yours either," said Kimberly Mitchell, a Ward 7 resident who says the Clean Rivers fees have made her bill unaffordable.
The Metropolitan Washington Council of the AFL-CIO has also joined in the fight.
"We must use our voice, use our vote, to make those that will not listen, listen," said the labor group's president, Jackie Jeter.
The city has floated a few ideas to offset rising costs, including creating a hardship program for non-profits that can't afford the Clean Rivers fee, or even finding a way to charge tourists who visit the District.
Another option is to asking the federal government, which mandated the tunnel project, to relax its timeframe so costs could be spread to later years.
Cheh directed the DC Water general manager to figure it out. "I would like you to come forward sooner than later with some ideas and if it requires the council to act, then it's on me."
DC Water will hold a series of town hall meetings on the proposed rates and a public hearing in May.
Here's the schedule. Locations still to be determined.
- Thursday, March 29 - Ward 1
- Tuesday, March 27 - Ward 2
- Tuesday, April 3 - Ward 3
- Thursday, April 5 - Ward 4
- Thursday, April 19 - Ward 5
- Tuesday, April 17 - Ward 6
- Thursday, April 26 - Ward 7
- Tuesday, April 24 - Ward 8
Reported by Jodie Fleischer, produced by Rick Yarborough, and shot and edited by Steve Jones.