Prescribed logic: Water/sewer rates set for 11-12% hike

Sally Thomas (left) handed over an official dredging report while Dede Smith offered a "minority report."
PHOTO BY HAWES SPENCER

Declining useage means that local water bills are getting a double-digit increase, as the Rivanna Water & Sewer Authority's five-member board voted unanimously Monday, February 23 for wholesale water/sewer rates to climb nearly 11 percent in the city and 12 percent in the county–- nearly double last year's increase.

"Rates must increase due mainly to lower flows," says the Authority's budget. "Although logic would seem to prescribe that lower flows would mean lower rates, the opposite is true when there are large fixed costs."

In other large fixed costs news, the Authority board voted unanimously to spend up to $264,000 to fund a three-member panel of engineers as part of the Authority's effort to build a dam in the Ragged Mountain Natural Area. Critics, such as former Charlottesville City Councilor Kevin Lynch and massage therapist Betty Mooney, have asked the Authority to hold off on any dam building until first dredging the existing Rivanna Reservoir.

"It's ridiculous," Mooney said following Monday's meeting. "It's wasting the public's money."

The Authority's rate vote didn't finalize the rates, but it does indicate that these will be the rates discussed May 18 at the public hearing before this same body.

While the Authority expects to sell 3.5 percent less water during fiscal 2010, both Authority director Tom Frederick and board member Gary O'Connell deny that local conservation measures should get credit for the downward trend in usage. Last year, pointing to about a decade of lower community water use, Lynch exclaimed, “How many years of conservation do we need to see before we can call that a trend?”

"It's not a year-to-year comparison," O'Connell said Monday, claiming that falling water use actually stems from several recent droughts, some of which included restrictions.

"You can make the data say whatever you want it to say," added Frederick.

The Authority plans to charge an average water/sewer wholesale rate of $2.63 per 1,000 gallons in the city (a 10.5 percent increase) and $3.20 per 1,000 gallons in the county (a 12 percent increase). What the two water distribution entities–- each of which is plagued by leaks that lose 10-17 percent of all treated water–- will charge their customers has not yet been revealed.

Last year, for instance, a six percent wholesale hike was passed on without any major add-ons to city customers (other than new customers seeing connection fees shoot from $1,600 to $6,010 per house). However, last year's six percent wholesale price hike morphed into a 20 percent spike when the Albemarle County Service Authority, the entity that actually delivers water to county homes, set its rates.

Faced with several ongoing construction costs and with connection fees plummeting due to the recessionary economy, county customers might want to brace for another round of water shocks.

In other actions, the board on Monday received a pair of at-odds dredging reports.

–last updated 11:51am, Tuesday, February 24

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Worksheet - an online extra!

FY     2008     2009     2010
City   $2.23   $2.38    $2.63
Co.   $2.69    $2.85    $3.20

–cost per 1,000 gallons

Read more on: rwsawater

22 comments

Unfortunately the public interest was ill served by today's water authority board actions. They failed to adequately fund the pipeline study at the same level as the dam study, and once again stalled approving the dredging studies.

Without consulting any boards this authority has already spent over $5 million on the current water supply proposal with not a drop of additional water to show from those studies and consultant payments. Below is a letter that was sent to Council today and expresses my concerns:

Dear Councilors,

Today the RWSA Board will consider the dam and pipeline study and postpone once again the dredging surveys. Do you believe the pipeline questions can be answered for $25,000 ? Below are just the necessary questions that need an answer for the South Fork Pipeline and the list now also includes a realistic cost for replacing the Sugar Hollow Pipeline and building the James River Pipeline ?

The new dam cannot work without this pipeline so does it make sense to spend $264,000 studying the dam, which is what Mr. Frederick will ask for today, without an equally valid study of the pipeline? This is all one project and doesn't someone need to sign off on the entire project and know the cost ?

Also the dredging surveys are not being approved until the 4 board chairs meet, in other words they will spend almost $300,000 on second guessing Gannett Fleming's dam estimate without blinking - without even asking the four boards, but to spend the SAME amount on getting a second opinion on Gannett Fleming's dredging estimate requires a task force and six months and a meeting of four boards. This does seem ridiculous to me and to many others. By now we could have had the dredging surveys done as they were originally approved to go forward last June. The reservoir has NEVER been maintained and they are required to do a bathymetric study every 5 years by the DEQ. This study has not been done for 7 years and costs $150,000. That is half of the entire amount to do all the necessary studies to get a second opinion on the Gannett Fleming dredging estimate. The RWSA has $300,000 in a watershed maintenance fund that Mr. Frederick has said could be used for these studies. In fact the $150,000 for the bathymetric study was in last years RWSA budget but the board removed it.

I find this process to be a serious waste of time and hope that Council will do all they can to get the dredging information that the public has clearly shown they want as soon as possible. Only then will we have a valid comparison of costs to go forward and a responsible use of ratepayers money .

South Pipeline Costs:

1) What are the current costs for all of the pipeline components identified in the GF report (pipe, intakes, pump stations, desediment ponds, etc)
2) What is the expected alignment and cost of ROW for that alignment?
3) What are the total operating costs of the pipeline, including not just electricity, but also the cost of chemicals for removing sediment, the cost of hauling the resulting sludge and operating costs for new pump buildings, personnel, and maintenance?
4) What are the environmental costs of the pipeline - in coal for energy burned and landfill tonnage?
5) RWSA and the Nature Conservancy proposes desedimenting and pumping water to Ragged Mt. Reservoir during "surge" events, after rainstorms - when the water is flowing over the dam. Can you give examples elsewhere in the country where this is being done successfully and what is the cost structure of these existing operations?
6) What is the cost for purchasing a 15 year option on the right of way, so that we know that we have a buildable pipeline and not have to re-route it 15 years when something gets built in the way?

Betty Mooney

I continue to believe that the dredging surveys will show that dredging the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir will be the quickest, cheapest, least environmentally damaging option to supply decades, and according to Greg Harper, the entire 50 year supply of water.

for more pipeline information see :
http://www.readthehook.com/blog/?p=5977

for Greg Harper analysis see:
http://www.readthehook.com/blog/index.php/2008/11/24/pumped-up-county-wa...

It is a paradox that they have to raise rates +10% because they are going to sell 3.5% less water in 2010 but our water usage is going to increase so much in the future that we have to spent $150 million plus to build the Ragged Mt. project.

I am so sick of all the lies coming out of RWSA and having them talk out of both sides of their mouths. The only thing close to the truth is Frederick's comment about making "the data say whatever you want it to say" except that applies to Frederick himself and all the other liars at RWSA.

I agree with Downing. This group of yahoos is merely trying to obfuscate the situation and cover their backsides.

Just two days before this meeting, Liz Palmer was on a panel at the Democratic Breakfast. She was waving her arms and saying over and over that for the next 5 Years there would be only modest increases in the water rates, nothing nearly as big as the 5% per annum that Kevin Lynch was saying they planned. Now we find the 5% is way low just a weekend latter.

So you decide, is Liz just deluded or is she trying to defraud. Listen to her and decide. Feb 21, 2009 meeting at Charlottesville Tomorrow http://cvilletomorrow.typepad.com/

Follow the money... This dam isn't for the City's benefit.

"The dam isn't for the city's benefit". The M. Parkway is also for the benefit of the county. The good thing, people are catching on and speaking up. I thought all along we would never get anywhere with Sally T. at the wheel. The committee is wasting time and money as they aim to steer in their own direction. The only thing that will work is a "get tough" approach.

Betty Mooney seems to know a lot about water supply planning to be a massage therapist.

Reason, Mooney has demonstrated that she is brilliant and that she has done her homework too. In fact her hard work is paying off. She makes Thomas and the others appear foolish. Betty, you make us proud!

Reason, if you'd studied as much about water supply as Betty Mooney and Keven Lynch had, you'd know a lot too. The BOS and Council get to vote on this process, and they're not water supply experts. The RWSA board is made up of a city manager, a developer, etc-- NOT water supply experts.

So, your point is...?

Downing Smith, you forgot the context "'It’s not a year-to-year comparison,' O’Connell said Monday, claiming that falling water use actually stems from several recent droughts, some of which included restrictions.

'You can make the data say whatever you want it to say,' added Frederick." Can anybody believe these people are being paid? Clean house. As public servants, they are a disgrace.

It wouldn't surprise me if legal suits are ultimately filed with the water piece and Parkway too. Many agree these officials are involved in promoting or ignoring direct violations of the law as they participate. What an improper example they are setting for the younger generation herein.

I just find it amusing that during recent droughts, we're told to conserve water or get fined, and install low flow faucets and such. And after obeying these rules, we then get penalized for not using enough water. Screw it, next drought, my car gets washed weekly and my grass will be well taken care of. Might as well, I'm paying for the water whether I use it or not apparently.

Game Time, Channel 29 just did a short news story asking the same question... why are we asked to conserve water and then penalized for doing so? IMHO, the City of Charlottesville and Albemarle County are both fast becoming two of the most screwed up places to live in this entire country.

I loved the story of Liz Palmer of the Ragged Mtn Reservoir non-plan fame (where is the pipeline going?) using the name of the League of Women Voters to promote her agenda, whatever it is. I'm sure John Martin was very interesting in who came, how many came, and how many swallowed this crap.
I wonder when the public will realize that this Authority (RWSA) is not under public control, tends towards exorbitant costs (it's because of the cost of chemicals), and claims its spending money on capital projects that it doesn't have to tell the rate payers about. It's time this body is dissolved and we form an elected board.

"In other large fixed costs news, the Authority board voted unanimously to spend up to $264,000 to fund a three-member panel of engineers as part of the Authority’s effort to build a dam in the Ragged Mountain Natural Area."

The document linked in the story above is worth looking at. The RWSA Board only allocated up to $25,000 for the entire pipeline study. If you look at this document and the fees paid to the consultants you will notice that just to chair the 3 person panel someone will be paid $25,000 the same as the entire allocation to determine all the pipeline costs.

http://www.scribd.com/doc/12790058/News-Rwsa-264kengineers

Yes, Betty Mooney, the extra $25,000 paid to the chairman of the panel for writing the panel's report, in in addition to the money that each panel member's company will receive for his services. Notice that $264,000 is coming from funds previously collected by the RWSA through rate hikes that has obviously been sitting around. They name the projects of the Meadowcreek Interceptor, the 50-year water supply proposal, and the state-mandated Moore's Creek Wastewater Treatment Plan as to why they must raise the capital funds. These projects do not include the replacement of the water and sewer lines that the county and city own. These figures represent the increase in what the RWSA will charge the ACSA and the city to deliver its services. Later this spring the ACSA and the city will add more to "cover their costs" and pass it on to their customers. It seems water and sewer costs are rising faster than health care costs in central VA. Yet, no one has declared a crisis and demanded that government start controlling it. I guess it's just a question of our "public servants" applying the proper spin. I question why are we stockpiling money today to pay for something that will not be in use for another 10 to 20 years?

The numbers in this story don't match the documents or the Daily Progress story. Is this more complicated than it looks??

Good point. The Daily Progress expressed the water rates and sewer rates separately. Since most County residents and nearly all-- if not all-- City residents can't buy one without the other, I combined them. I was trying to simplify this matter as much as possible because it is going to be further complicated in a month or so when the retail rates to area households are released. The retail rates are typically hiked above and beyond the WHOLESALE rates discussed in my above story.--hawes spencer, journalist for the hook

What do county and city tax payers think about these increases ? Isn't this a tax increase on water users who are using less water for financial and environmental reasons ?

Maybe the costs of upcoming capital projects is something both Republicans and Democrats can agree should be carefully scrutinized.
Right now there are wildly divergent costs for increasing the water supply which will mean borrowing money and paying debt service to finance. Whatever the cost --we will pay !

This is what happened last year and the RWSA cost of water/sewer is even higher this year

http://www.readthehook.com/blog/index.php/2008/05/08/county-water-rates-...

"In what a group of water watchdogs fear could be a harbinger of harsher things to come, County water bills will spike 20 percent this year, if rates proposed by the Albemarle County Service Authority win approval. The increase would combine with last year’s 30 percent jump to mean customers would pay 55 percent more than just two years ago and nearly triple what they paid in 1999."

Former Rivanna Authority director Rich Collins told radio listeners on WINA’s ââ?¬Å?Charlottesville, Right Now” program today that the various water boards are eyeing $400 million in capital projects that will eventually be borne by water buyers.

Kevin Lynch, a former City Councilor and member of the watchdog group Citizens for a Sustainable Water Supply, says that sharp water rate increases [pdf] in recent years have allowed the Rivanna Authority to stockpile millions in cash. Indeed, the most recent annual report shows a balance in cash and investments of $30.65 million. Lynch believes this money will evaporate once work begins on state-mandated sewer improvements and the controversial dam/pipeline."

and once that money evaporates the only way to pay for these projects is by raising your water and sewer bill ---how high will it go --right now anyone's guess ?

If 50 years from now we're using less water than RWSA has planned for and they build they're expensive new dam and pipeline ---doesn't that mean more rate increases to cover their fixed costs?

How does anyone know how much water we'll need 2 generations from now with all the changes in water conservation technology coming along ?

And, who's to say that the federal government would have ruled that localities will have to restrict their water usage or have taken over the water works and the region would not be able to use all of the water it wants? I asked before that Charlottesville was so erroneous in projecting CHS student enrollment (it never got anywhere near 2000 and in fact enrollment started declining about 10 years after the building was built) who in his right mind would try to predict the p0pulation that would be served by the RMR? How do we know how much water may be generated as some alternative fuel industry by-product? The arrogance with which they speak only serves to indicate what lesser minds they have.

This is a form of tax. We need to save water not punish people for using less. Placing a tax on water and forcing people to use will kill us all. Stop and THINK....Get ride of the high fixed costs, Cut Cut Cut Everyone needs to cut back and put in play strong water politics. The people need to act and fast. We need to have a 3rd party monitor the cities and the water waste. They tell us we need to save water yet we pump millions of gallons out to sea everyday, lets convert it into Grey-Water for outdoor cleaning and watering.