Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Counties approve largest water rate increase in 15 years

WSSC officials say more is needed to address aging infrastructure

E-mail this article \ Print this article

This story was updated from its print version on May 19, 2008.

The Montgomery and Prince George’s County Councils last week approved an 8 percent increase to resident and commercial water bills, the largest increase in 15 years.

The increase Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission customers will average out to about $11 more per quarter beginning July 1. It was scaled back from earlier efforts to boost water rates 9.5 percent more per month and tack on a $20 per month fee to pay for the utility's aging pipes.

The two councils took five minutes to approve the changes at a special bi-county budget session May 9, where they settle the spending plans for services both governments share.

Most of the work happened two months ago, when commission representatives for both governments hashed out the lower terms for residents’ water bills, cutting the rate hike by 1 percent and eliminating the infrastructure fee that would have jumped bills by about 50 percent.

‘‘There was a feeling that it was just too much,” said Mike McGill, WSSC spokesman.

WSSC has raised rates every year since 2004. Last year, the fee increase jumped from the average of 3 percent or less to 6.5 percent. From 1999 to 2004, rates remained stable, a decision officials now say led to neglected maintenance of the system that serves 1.8 million people.

Officials for the two counties also scaled back costs for shared administration for all their bi-county divisions in this year’s budgets, cutting $932,000 from their shared central service division. The biggest cut was a $270,000 reduction to legal staff supplied by Montgomery County for planning and zoning issues.

Both governments are struggling financially this year after the national economic downturn caused by rising foreclosures and an overall drop in the real estate market. In Prince George’s County, officials had to retool spending to overcome an estimated $120 million deficit, while Montgomery has proposed increasing property taxes and cutting employees to cover a $297 million deficit.

The stark budgets come at the same time water lines in the two counties are failing. Officials for the utility say many of the system’s aging water lines must be replaced because they are breaking, which was one reason for the original $20 infrastructure fee.

Flooding caused by the failing system lines has started to affect area traffic and water service more often. In 2006, there were 2,149 recorded line breaks, a record for the utility.

‘‘I’m from District 1, where the water mains seem to break on a regular basis,” Montgomery County Councilman Roger Berliner (D) of Potomac said as he introduced himself at the meeting.

WSSC officials said the reduced spending plan will still allow them to repair 27 miles’ worth of water lines and about 51 miles of sewer pipes in the upcoming year by drawing on $5.6 million in reserve funds.

But they warn that they still must find a way to overhaul their system. Right now, about half of the utility’s water lines are more than 50 years old, and officials say they need to significantly step up their annual replacement efforts.

‘‘Everyone has the same problem,” McGill said. ‘‘But we’ll see how it plays out.”

McGill said officials will revisit the $20 infrastructure fee in the next year and that officials could phase in the payments.

The WSSC budget approved for next fiscal year is $914 million, paid from resident and business bills from each county. About $451 million will pay to operate the system, while the rest is used for building and replacing plant, pumps and pipes, officials said.

At the meeting, the County Councils also discussed funding for the Transit Commission, which applies for grants and handles other administrative tasks for mass transit, and the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.

For the Transit Commission, Prince George’s and Montgomery will pay $70,500 and $95,000, respectively, next fiscal year.

The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission has a budget of $15.2 million. Each county pays roughly half.