DC Water says it will assess the fairness of skyrocketing fees after a News4 I-Team investigation revealed bills that have jumped by thousands of dollars and customers who are unable to pay.
This does not necessarily mean DC Water is planning to change the fees, but the agency has vowed to take a look at who pays the most and whether the right people are paying the right amount.
The fees are part of DC Water's Clean Rivers program which started in 2009; the fees have grown exponentially every year since then.
DC Water also launched a new web page Thursday night to explain the program's history and address growing concerns from the community.
The web page also promises to assess the overall fairness of the Clean Rivers fees, which fund a $2.6 billion project to build underground tunnels designed to stop sewage and stormwater from overflowing into our rivers. The federal government mandated DC Water do something to fix that problem.
Earlier this week, the News4 I-Team revealed how leaders in Washington's faith community said they're having trouble paying their bills and could have to cut community programs. That prompted a meeting from various religious institutions to discuss the problem.
Historic cemeteries also told the I-Team they could have to shut down as a result of the high fees.
In one case, the water bill has jumped from $3,500 a year to $200,000 a year and, the fee makes up 80 percent of that bill.
DC Water's general manager said the problem with lowering fees for the faith community and cemeteries is that if they get a break, all of the other customers will have to pay more to make up the difference.
DC Water customers are the main funding source for the Clean Rivers project, which is the largest public works project in Washington, D.C., since Metro was built.
Skyrocketing DC Water Bills Leave Some Customers Unable to Pay
Water bills are skyrocketing across the District by hundreds, even thousands, of dollars a month, and the News4 I-Team found it has nothing to do with how much water customers are using.
The fees are funding a multi-billion dollar project, and DC Water is charging each of its customers to pay for it.
A group of church leaders reached out to the News4 I-Team saying they could no longer afford to pay their growing bills, so we crunched the numbers and found Washington, D.C.'s faith community, which survives largely on donations, has already shelled out millions for these fees.
"It's dire, because we're looking at our budget now for 2018 and we can't balance it," Velma Wyman told the I-Team.
On Sunday mornings at the First Baptist Church on Minnesota Avenue, the members celebrate a higher power.
But it's the church's higher water bills that have Wyman on edge.
The church members pass the plate, but now, many of their donations can't go to the ministry or the long list of needed projects for the 144-year-old congregation.
"Our people are very generous, and they will do that. but at a certain point, they don't have the money," said Wyman. "They're getting hit the same way we're getting hit."
Down the road, at Bethesda New Life Gospel Church, Pastor Jesse Richardson, Jr. is also getting hit.
"We started to notice this great big ol’ water bill all of a sudden," recalls Richardson, saying at first DC Water said the church must have a leak.
"They came by and they checked all the plumbing and these things, and one of the deacons happened to look at the itemized bill and say, 'Hey, what is this?'" Richardson said.
"We're Being Robbed Without a Gun!"
It's called the Clean Rivers Impervious Area Charge, or IAC, and it's on every DC water bill.
The fee pays for the building of large underground tunnels to keep sewage and stormwater from flooding our rivers. The project stems from a federal mandate to fix the environmental problem.
But when the News4 I-Team was flooded with complaints from across the District, we took a look at the money DC Water is charging customers for the project.
"It’s clearly made up, they gave absolutely no thought to the process or how much they would charge," said Richardson. "And I think it’s totally unfair."
DC Water does have a formula based on aerial photos of every D.C. property. Those photos are used to calculate the square footage of the buildings and any areas of concrete, like sidewalks or parking lots.
The thinking is the properties with the most concrete would contribute the most stormwater runoff and should pay more.
"Some churches in our least affluent communities are paying the most, like close to $50,000 at a Ward 8 church. How does that even make sense?" said Craig Muckle, with the Archdiocese of Washington, many of whose member churches are also at a breaking point.
The same is true for synagogues and mosques, where the main source of income is donations. And congregants who live in the District are also paying the fee on their own water bills at home.
"It’s not fair," said Muckle. "Some people are paying it twice, or three times if they happen to own a business."
For months the News4 I-Team filed records requests and crunched the numbers. The District's faith-based community has already paid more than $11 million just in Clean Rivers fees, largely because of their parking lots, which city law requires.
"When you build a church in District of Columbia, you have to have one off-street parking for every 10 members," said Pastor George Gilbert, Sr. of Holy Trinity United Baptist Church.
When the charge first started in 2009, it was so small, no one really noticed. Now some churches pay $6,000, $9,000, even $12,000 a month, just for the IAC fee.
"We’re being robbed without a gun," said Pastor Richardson. "You have to remember, we cannot charge, we cannot go up on our rates to allow people to come into the church."
"Unfortunately Someone's Got to Pay the Bill."
The News4 I-Team took the pastors' concerns to the head of DC Water, George Hawkins.
"It pains me to explain this to our ratepayers but it is the hard reality. We have a giant project. It's the biggest public works project in Washington, D.C., since Metro was built," he said.
Hawkins pointed out that one benefit of the current fee system is it allows DC Water to collect IAC fees from properties that are only parking lots, with plenty of stormwater runoff and no need for regular water service.
But Hawkins says he's aware the faith community and other non-profits are hurting, and it's something of great concern.
"One of the challenges we have in the District, perhaps more than most cities, is an enormous number of our customers are nonprofit," said Hawkins. "Government is nonprofit. We have every nonprofit known to humankind located here."
And some of those non-profits have not expressed any trouble paying the higher bills. So the board would have to consider how to help the ones who can't pay while making sure the ones who can don't get an unnecessary break.
"Every discount we give to one customer is money we have to raise from everybody else," said Hawkins, pointing out that regular homeowners, local business owners, even the government-owned buildings whose bills are paid with tax dollars will all have to make up the difference.
"We look at every option. And there aren't that many. Unfortunately someone's got to pay the bill," said Hawkins.
A $2 Credit on a $420 Fee
First Baptist Church of Minnesota Avenue has tried everything church leaders can think of to lower the fees.
In 2013, D.C.'s Department of Energy and Environment and the Anacostia Watershed Society helped build the church two rain gardens and funnel water from their roof. They also replaced a large section of concrete with porous pavers to limit the stormwater runoff.
"If we get a heavy rain, it looks like a little river coming through the channels here and there," said Wyman.
But the credit on the church's bill only amounts to $2.45 off of the $420 fee.
"Oh yeah, you feel good, but your purse doesn't feel good because it's costly," said Wyman.
And the I-Team found DC Water actually increased the church's fee, instead of lowering it.
"I think it's words, they say they're going to look at that. But looking at it and doing something about it are two different things," said Wyman, adding that churches could be forced to cut things like feeding programs, bookbag giveaways and holiday help for the needy -- things that really impact the community.
The I-Team found the average church is paying about $400 per month just for the IAC fee, which will continue to rise each year for the foreseeable future.
"It's a it's a painful reality for what is necessary to improve our system," said Hawkins. "My comment to any of those customers is we are aware of the issue and we know it's a challenge."
He committed that the board will thoroughly evaluate the hardship for churches and other non-profits, but that would likely not happen until the beginning of 2018 at the earliest.
"We understand their dilemma but it's hard, it's really hard on us," said Wyman.
Historic D.C. Cemeteries in Jeopardy of Closing Due to Growing Water Bills
When you look out across the rolling hills of Rock Creek Cemetery, you find a resting place filled with beauty, sculptures and a significant piece of Washington DC history. Over the years, the grounds have attracted people of all faiths, races, and backgrounds.
"We have four Supreme Court justices here. We have a signer of the Constitution here," said Jim Jones, who sits on the finance committee for St. Paul's Rock Creek Church, which runs the cemetery. "This is the most historic cemetery in the city. And we want to be here. We've been here since 1712."
But the cemetery's future is in jeopardy because it can't pay its $200,000-a-year water bill, Jones said. That bill used to be about $3,500 per year.
"Our actual water usage is declining, incidentally. But the actual water bill is still climbing," said Jones. "It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever."
It's because of the Clean Rivers IAC, which stands for Impervious Area Charge. It's a fee DC Water charges based on estimated stormwater runoff for each property.
Roadways, parking spaces and rooftops of buildings all generate increased fees. In the cemetery's case, DC Water is also counting the surface area of the mausoleums on the property.
"It was a real shock and a surprise," said Jones. "Most of these mausoleums were constructed as places for people's loved ones 150, 200 years ago. There's no way we go back and recapture that. And to, in effect, be punished for that, it's a bit much."
Rock Creek Cemetery is paying nearly $15,000 a month for the IAC fee, which accounts for about 80 percent of the cemetery's total water bill.
The News4 I-Team spent months requesting records from DC Water, matching up properties and calculating how much each has to pay, and found D.C.'s cemeteries have already paid millions toward funding the District's multi-billion dollar Clean Rivers project, construction of underground tunnels to keep sewage and stormwater from flooding our rivers.
The federal government mandated D.C. do something to solve its overflow issues, and DC Water opted to embark on the Clean Rivers project in 2009. It's the most expensive public works project in Washington, D.C., since Metro was built.
"It just seems patently unfair that the heaviest burden appears to be placed in a place that’s actually supporting the city in its work to serve the community," said Craig Muckle, public policy manager for the Archdiocese of Washington.
Cemeteries and churches are especially hard hit, Muckle added, because they have to have parking areas.
Some larger cemeteries also have roads to get to their gravesites. It all factors into that IAC fee.
But the I-Team found DC Water does not make the District pay for its public roadways; those are exempt.
"If it’s good for the goose, it’s good for the gander," said Muckle.
D.C. government does pay millions each year for its buildings and parking lots, and so does the federal government.
The fee even allows DC Water to charge customers who don't get a regular water bill but do cause stormwater runoff, like commercial parking lots.
Cemeteries are different, Jones said. "We're not a commercial parking lot or the evil chemical company incorporated; we're a green space!"
Rock Creek Cemetery even spent $100,000 ripping out some of its roadways and planting grass instead, Jones said.
But when it appealed to DC Water, an inspector came out and noticed more impervious area, so the monthly IAC fees went up.
"We were absolutely dumbfounded," said Jones. "We have the largest variety of trees outside of the arboretum here in Washington, D.C."
The National Arboretum is a 400-acre sanctuary of public green space which pays nearly $400,000 a year in IAC fees, even though it isn't hooked to a storm drain and re-uses its stormwater run-off to water the plants.
The News4 I-Team asked the head of DC Water, George Hawkins, whether the cemeteries and arboretum have a valid argument to avoid the growing fees.
"It's an argument that has a point to it," replied Hawkins, adding that if bills are lowered for high-dollar customers like cemeteries and the arboretum, the rest of the city's customers would have to make up the difference, because that massive tunnel project isn't getting any cheaper.
"We're going to evaluate various options of what we could or should do just on this basis. What is the cost of it?" said Hawkins, vowing that the water board will take a look at the issue, but probably not until sometime in 2018.
"I think there needs to be a whole rethinking of how revenue for this project is derived," said Jones. "And there ought to be at least a cap or an exemption for historic places."
Other cities, like Baltimore, have already exempted cemetery streets from stormwater fees and offer a hardship exemption for non-profits who can't pay.
Jones said the cemeteries won't be able to pay anything if they're all out of business.
"I think over time many operators are going to be simply left with no other choice than to close their gates and walk away," said Jones. "And I think for an institution like Rock Creek Cemetery ... that is just unthinkable."
Reported by Jodie Fleischer, produced by Rick Yarborough, and shot and edited by Steve Jones.