The story was corrected at 3:30 p.m. Jan. 17, 2014. An explanation follows.
Water and sewer rates in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties would increase by 6 percent under a budget proposal issued this week by the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission.
If approved, the rate hike would add about $4.47 per month, or $13.41 per quarter, to what the utility would charge a typical customer, beginning July 1, based on household usage of about 210 gallons of water daily.
The rate hike follows a 7.25 percent increase last year, preceded by rate increases ranging from 9 percent to 7.5 percent between 2012 and 2008 and from 6.5 percent to 2.5 percent between 2007 and 2004.
Before that, WSSC rates did not increase for six years, following a belt-tightening at the public utility after lawmakers, in the mid-1990s, pushed for moving more of the utility’s work to the private sector.
The $1.33 billion budget plan presented to the WSSC commissioners this week is 7.5 percent lower than the $1.44 billion approved for this budget year, which ends June 30.
The proposal for the budget that begins July 1 includes more than $625 million in capital spending and more than $707 million in operating costs.
Most of the overall 15.7 percent decrease in the capital budget would come from the completion of major improvements in sewage treatment technologies. That includes enhanced nutrient removal at WSSC plants. It also includes, at the regional Blue Plains facility in Washington, D.C., anaerobic digestion processes that reduce sewage solids and generate electricity.
A 1.2 percent increase in the operating budget would come from a more than $3 million increase in salaries and wages, a nearly $2 million increase in the utility’s share for the cost of operating Blue Plains and a $14.86 million increase in costs for “other” expenses. That would be offset by an almost $10.5 million decrease in debt service — loan repayment — costs and a projected more than $1 million decrease in costs for heat, light and power.
“My question is: Is the increase enough to prevent major water pipes from exploding and enough to prevent sewers from backing up into people’s homes and pouring into streams?” said Larry Silverman, a lawyer and environmental advocate.
“My concern is: Is the County Council is going to try to cut that budget?” Silverman said.
The proposed 6 percent combined increase in water and sewer rates is at the limit that Montgomery and Prince George’s counties’ agreed on in setting spending affordability guidelines late last year.
Three commissioners from each of the two counties make up the utility’s governing board. They will review, and can change, their staff’s budget proposal before they vote on it and send it to the two counties’ executives, which they are required to do by March 1.
“There’s a good chance it [the rate increase] will come in at 6 percent,” WSSC Chairman Gene Counihan of Montgomery said Wednesday.
Cutbacks and no rate increases for several years have led to “a lot of maintenance issues to be addressed [and] we have a bigger system to maintain,” Counihan said.
After a spate of sub-zero temperatures in the first week of January, the utility has suffered 301 water main and pipe leaks and breaks. As of Wednesday, 41 of those ruptures still needed to be repaired, WSSC spokesman Jerry Irvine wrote in an email.
The rehabilitation of 60 miles of water mains, house connections, meters and vaults is included in the budget, according to WSSC documents, as well as increased funding for reconstruction and monitoring.
Counihan said the commissioners are concerned about the ability of low-income customers to pay the higher rates.
That concern has led the utility to ask the legislature to allow it to create a program to provide cost relief to low-income customers, he said.
A work group examining the utility’s rate structure is expected to issue findings and recommendations in late April or May. The report might generate a lot of community discussion, Counihan said.
The WSSC will hold a public hearing on the budget proposal Feb. 5 at 7:30 p.m. in Rockville at the County Council building at 100 Maryland Ave.
The utility also will hold a public hearing on the budget Feb. 6 in Largo at 1400 McCormick Drive.
By March 15, the budget proposal goes to the county councils.
The Montgomery and Prince George’s county councils must come to an agreement and approve a budget for the WSSC by June 1 or the budget approved by the WSSC commissioners is adopted.
Editor’s note: The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission’s proposed budget includes $707 million in operating costs and $625 million in capital costs. An earlier version of the story erred by citing operating and capital costs for the current budget year rather than those proposed for next year.