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Harford council holds hearing on proposed water rate hike

The Harford County Council did not vote Tuesday on a plant to increase water rates in the county, the first such increase in nearly 20 years. The increase would<a class="lgbgoktbia" href="#72075052" title="Click to Continue &gt; by mediaplayer"> stem<img alt="" src="https://cdncache-a.akamaihd.net/items/it/img/arrow-10x10.png"/></a> years of losses in its utility operations, including at the Sod Run Wastewater Treatment Plant, above.
The Harford County Council did not vote Tuesday on a plant to increase water rates in the county, the first such increase in nearly 20 years. The increase would stem years of losses in its utility operations, including at the Sod Run Wastewater Treatment Plant, above. (Courtesy of Harford County government / Baltimore Sun)

There was little protest of Harford County's proposed water and sewer rate hike during at a County Council hearing Tuesday.

Three residents spoke at the hearing after county officials explained their rationale for the increase in user rates. Two of the residents questioned the legislation's wisdom.

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The council did not vote Tuesday on the increase, the first in almost two decades. County Director of Administration Billy Boniface and Deputy Director of Public Works for Water and Sewer Joel Caudill said it is needed to maintain costs for the county's "vast, complex and aging" infrastructure.

Households with public water and sewer service would pay about $13 more each month, and customers would feel the full impact of the increase on their April 2016 quarterly bill.

Prabha Kumar, of Black & Veatch Corporation, the group commissioned by the previous County Council to study water rates, said the increase would allow the county to build in a roughly 60-day reserve in funds. The increase is partly based on that study.

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"We are trying to balance the impact on customers at the same time we are trying to make sure the utility can operate in a viable manner," Kumar said.

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Under county law, the water and sewer system is accounted for as a separate enterprise fund, one that must break even or run at a surplus from the revenue taken in – the rates charged to users. The fund is not supplemented by general tax revenue, and the County Council is essentially the rate-making body.

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"We know this is a difficult decision to make, but, quite frankly, this was left on the table when we came into office," Boniface, the previous head of the County Council, told the council.

He said County Executive David Craig's administration discussed stabilizing the water and sewer operations by creating a water authority, but Harford's three municipalities would not buy in to that.

"That is not an option for this administration because the municipalities have not agreed to come on board with that," Boniface said. "We are not moving forward with an authority, so we have to address this issue."

Councilman Joe Woods asked what else the water and sewer division has done to cut costs. Caudill said it has held the same number of staff for about 10 years and has enlisted technology to aid in efficiency, such as an automatic meter reading program.

He also said the county has not waited especially long to move on accounts that are delinquent. County treasurer Robert Sandlass said if a customer is late paying in a given quarter, the utilities are generally shut off the next quarter.

John Mallamo, a Bel Air resident, said it was "bad governance" to not make the report available to the public ahead of time, and he also criticized the firm contracted to do the review.

"Black & Veatch is very much in the customer satisfaction business," Mallamo said. "If the customer says, 'We want to raise rates,' they will give you a study that will support that."

He said the county's consolidated fiscal report shows the county increased operating costs in the face of declining revenues, creating a situation where there is not enough money to pay debt service, and the county surplus was depleted by "paygo" funding.

Not giving a public the chance to see the study beforehand "is more symbolic of a banana republic," Mallamo said, run by "County Executive Flimflam."

Another resident, Ben White, disagreed, saying he was pleased to see the council "have the courage to raise rates when necessary." He noted he recently paid for a meal for him and his daughter in Delaware for less than the cost of the quarterly increase.

"What I want is clean water, I want water mains that don't break every day, like in Baltimore City," he said. "I know this is not a popular stance to take, so I appreciate your courage in doing this."

White added that if someone wants a quality product, "it's going to cost."

Phased increase

The bill calls for a phased-in increase, with the quarterly base water charge rising for customers with a standard residential 5/8-inch meter, from $6.04 to $9.02, but it would significantly lower the base charge for all meters larger than that, mostly commercial, industrial and institutional customers.

In 2017 through 2019, quarterly base water charges would rise for customers with 5/8-inch and 3/4-inch meters but would steadily drop for owners of all larger meters.

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The base sewer charge would rise from $5.61 to $7.60 for a 5/8-inch water meter, while the base charge for a 12-inch meter, for example, would decrease from $5,220.09 to $4,903.84. The residential flat rate charge would rise from $60.29 to $77.46.

The base charge for a 5/8-inch meter would keep increasing, to $12.68 by 2019, while charges for other meters would decrease.

The quarterly water usage rate, meanwhile, would increase from a universal $2.43 per 1,000 gallons to $3.45. The excess water usage rate would go up from $3.04 per 1,000 gallons to $4.31.

The water usage rate would rise to $3.82 from Jan. 1, 2017 to June 30, 2017; $4.44 from July 1, 2017, to June 30, 2018; $4.45 from July 1, 2018 to June 30, 2019; and $4.73 starting July 1, 2019.

Quarterly sewer usage rates would also increase, from $3.09 to $4.99 per 1,000 gallons in 2016, $5.42 Jan. 1, 2017, through June 30, 2017, $6.77 July 1, 2017 through June 30, 2018, $6.79 July 1, 2018 through June 30, 2019 and $7.22 starting July 1, 2019. Sewer use is calculated based on water consumption.

The legislation also creates a water and sewer asset reinvestment charge, a quarterly surcharge that would be paid by all customers, including wholesale buyers and governmental customers buying under contract, for each connection based on the size of the largest water meter installed.

The surcharge, which would range from $3.89 to $486.25 for water and for sewer, will be used to fund facilities, equipment and infrastructure.

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