Thursday, Feb. 7, 2008

Bowie customers brace for a WSSC rate hike

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A Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission representative Monday night told the City Council that customers could face a $20 monthly infrastructure fee in addition to a 9.5 percent rate increase later this year, prompting concern from council members over how residents would pay for such increases in their water bills.

Tom Traber, chief financial officer of WSSC, told council members the utility is holding public hearings on its proposal to repair or replace 1,800 miles of pipes in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties.

Traber told council the WSSC’s aging infrastructure needs a $300 million investment to make repairs.

The infrastructure fee, which is based on the size of a customer’s meter, would be $20 monthly for residential customers. The 9.5 percent increase in the water bill would go to pay for increased operating costs.

The fee would be locked in for at least 10 years and be placed in a trust to be used only for infrastructure repairs.

‘‘It’s a lot of money, and we fully understand that,” Traber said.

Traber said a variety of factors have contributed to the pipes needing replacement, including roads being built on top of pipes that were not designed to have roads on top of them.

‘‘What happens over time is they wear out a little faster,” Traber said.

Council members and residents said they had concerns about the effect of the costs on consumers, especially low-income residents and senior citizens on fixed incomes.

Specifically, they asked how WSSC could provide relief to senior citizens and low-income customers.

Traber said WSSC has a fund to which customers and employees can donate in order to help low-income residents pay their water bills; however, he said any type of credits to offset the costs would have to be approved by the General Assembly.

Councilman Dennis Brady (At-large) asked how many more years a fee would be necessary to make adequate improvements.

‘‘It sounds like this is the start of an ongoing and continuing process,” Brady said.

Traber said the process of replacing and repairing infrastructure would be long-term, but a time frame would be determined once work began.

Bowie resident Richard Schroder also said he had concerns about how residents would pay for the extra fee and suggested a variety of options, including a tax on bottled water, to raise additional funds.

Resident Mary Ellen Winlund said residents would be paying for improvements in other communities, including inner-Beltway communities, which a map presented by Traber showed had the most water main breaks.

‘‘We’re paying for failing infrastructure that’s not even in Bowie,” Winlund said.

Mayor G. Frederick Robinson said it was important for the WSSC to make proactive improvements ‘‘rather than the default position which is waiting for the [water main] breaks.”

He said county officials should look for ‘‘more creative approaches” to help fund the improvements and find a way to address the effect on low-income and elderly residents.

Traber said WSSC wants to make the public aware of its needs and is requesting public comment on the proposal. He said the WSSC was planning to hold hearings Wednesday and tonight for the public to weigh in on the proposal. WSSC also will accept written testimony by mail or electronically on their Web site at www.wsscwater.com. Tonight’s public hearing will be held at 7:30 p.m. at the Stella B. Warnrer Office Building in Rockville.

In other business, council unanimously approved the comprehensive design plan for the Hall Station Village Center at Central Avenue and Hall Road.

The planned development includes 109 residential units, including two-family units and townhouses, 42,000 square feet of commercial, retail and office space and a public library of as much as 50,000 square feet.

Russ Ideo, president of the Citizens Association of South Bowie, said the citizens association and other groups worked with the developer on a plan that would be a ‘‘good fit in that piece of property.”

‘‘I think we all know that Bowie is large enough now to support another library, and we welcome that library for our children and for our population in that area,” Ideo said.

The County Council voted in November to require construction to begin on the library before the rest of the site could proceed.

Council members voted unanimously also to send an additional letter to the county reiterating their support for the library project beginning first.

Council also voted 6 to 1 to hire the lobbying firm of O’Malley, Miles, Nylen and Gilmore, P.A. to represent the city in Annapolis for a fee of $25,000. The city’s representative will be Leonard Lucchi, a Bowie resident and member of the city’s Public Safety Committee.

The firm was chosen over the firm of Alexander and Cleaver, which proposed to represent the city for $20,000, City Manager David Deutsch told members in response to a question from Councilman Todd Turner (Dist. 3).

Turner raised questions about the selection of the firm, including the fact that the firm represents the union that represents workers at Dimensions Healthcare System, which oversees the Bowie Health Center. City officials have been concerned over the future of the hospital because of the financial problems that have plagued Dimensions.

Robinson also announced the resignation of City Attorney Elissa Levan, who is leaving to take a position with the state Attorney General’s office. Robinson praised Levan’s years of service to the city and wished her well in her new position.

E-mail Megan King at mking@gazette.net.