4X club: Rewarding thrift, County hits water hogs
Albemarle County, which has been sending a message of seeking ever more water via a controversial dam proposal, abruptly altered course Thursday morning by approving a new rate structure that subsidizes thrifty households and punishes water hogs with rates that quadruple as use increases.
"I think it's great," says water watcher Betty Mooney. "They're encouraging conservation by charging the people who use the most water the most money."
The new rates, approved June 18 by the Albemarle County Service Authority, price a single-family home's first 3,000 gallons at just $3.32/1,000 gallons, which is the wholesale rate the Authority has to pay to get the water it sells. That's 14 percent less than the $3.86/1,000 gallons that such thrifty users are currently paying.
However, as usage climbs, so does the price, in four tiers.
Lauding the new structure for its simplicity and transparency, Authority Board member Jim Colbaugh pointed out that the second 3,000 gallons will be charged 2x the wholesale rate, the third 3,000 gallons will charged 3x, and any household using more than 9,000 gallons–- which is more than double the average use–- will pay a top rate exactly four times wholesale: $13.28 per 1,000 gallons.
Authority documents indicate that 41 percent of customers already use less than 3,000 gallons; only six percent use more than 9,000 gallons. And Authority director Gary Fern says the innovative scheme–- which emerged after a different set of rates had already been advertised–- was devised by Annapolis-based consultants Municipal and Financial Services Group. He says a committee consisting of himself, his finance director, and board members Colbaugh and Liz Palmer were pleasantly stunned.
"We all sat there and said this is a good way to go," says Fern. "We all felt good about this."
Not everyone at the board meeting felt as good. Fred Weinberg, who moved to the Crozet area in 2005, heard one board member talking about preventing "rate shock" among customers.
"You're talking about rate shock," said Weinberg. "That," he said, referring to his move here, "was rate shock."
Although the average Albemarle household will soon be paying $52.97 for water and sewer, just 71 cents a month more than last year, Weinberg says this vastly exceeds the charges in Harrisonburg, Roanoke, and in his former home county of Fairfax, where–- despite two daughters "who drained the hot water tank every time they took a shower"–- he'd typically pay $50 per quarter.
"As just a public Mr. Joe, I don't understand it," Weinberg told the board. "You're sitting here talking about raising rates and borrowing money."
Board member Colbaugh defended the move and explained that the debt the Authority will soon incur will be devoted to one particular northside project, the replacement of the Camelot waste treatment facility with the $5.8 million North Fork Regional Pump Station. He says that the debt, $5 million, will be borne by new users in that part of town. "It's not going to burden for the long-term our current customers," said Colbaugh.
One long-term business operator, however, already feels a burden. Kenny Shiflett, who began working at Foothill Lawn Service in 1989 and now owns the business which installs in-lawn irrigation systems, says the area's water rates–- which the board admits might climb eight percent next year–- have been driving away his customers.
"We're losing sales and revenue," says Shiflett. "People aren't putting irrigation in because the water's gotten too expensive."
That's just fine with board member John Martin, who notes that watering lawns consumes at least 10 percent of the system's water and causes "huge peaks" in water use, particularly during the summer when demand climbs about 50 percent.
Martin wanted to charge the full 4x rate for every drop used for irrigation. However, after fellow board member Colbaugh called that unfair, board member Palmer suggested tabling the measure for further study.
Another conservation measure the board did take was codifying and clarifying its existing leak policy to expressly forbid refunds for any irrigation or inside-of-structure leaks. (It seems staff recently refunded sewer charges to someone whose pool house was severely damaged by a leak.)
Other conservation measures employed by the county include rebates for installing rain barrels and low-flow toilets. However, businesses and people who live in multi-family houses sharing meters won't participate in the new conservation-minded pricing scheme. They'll buy their water just under the 2x rate, for a flat $6.19 per 1,000 gallons.
All this conservation comes at a price to the Authority, which approved its 2010 budget at the same meeting. While the Authority held $13.27 million in cash and reserves at the end of June 2008, two years of falling nearly two million dollars below revenue targets is causing $2.34 million getting pulled out of an equipment repair fund in fiscal year 2009 with another $2.75 to cover water losses– or "smooth required rate increases"–- in the coming year.
One shocker to water watcher Mooney was that board member Martin, despite embracing a new pricing scheme that she believes will further erode the area's already falling water sales, still embraces the idea building the new reservoir, something that's been condemned as overblown by such disparate parties as the Sierra Club and electronics mogul Bill Crutchfield, the latter of whom brands it Charlottesville's "bridge to nowhere."
As he did just a day earlier when phoning in to WINA radio's Rob Schilling show (after dam supporters Palmer and Supervisor Sally Thomas reportedly declined to appear), Martin emphasized a historical perspective of the need to overbuild water supplies for future generations.
"To build any kind of water supply plan on the cheap would be a betrayal of our children and grandchildren." Referring to earlier planners, Martin added, "They did everything right, no matter what the sacrifice. And now, simply, it's our turn.
"Well said," remarked board chair Don Wagner.
"But we need to connect the dots," Mooney said after the meeting. "These new rates mean we won't need as much water. We're already seeing demand fall, and now it's going to happen faster."
–last updated 4:14pm June 22