Post #448: Water/sewer bills, waiting for the other three shoes to drop.

Last year and current year Town of Vienna water and sewer rates:

Sec._1_13.___Schedule_of_public_works_fees_red lined-2

The Town of Vienna quietly raised the water and sewer rates in July.  Nobody paid attention at the time, but now it seems that a lot of people are figuring this out and a few seem upset about it.

And so, there seems to be a lot of nonsense going around about this, e.g., that our rates are twice as high as Fairfax County.  To be fair, water and sewer bills are not straightforward.  So I’ve seen a lot of mistakes like (e.g.) not factoring in the sewer rates.

But the key fact that many seem to overlook is that this is just the second year of a five-year plan to raise water and sewer rates in the Town of Vienna.  I don’t think that’s widely recognized.

So I thought I’d do my best to get the facts down in black and white.  The increase was done at the suggestion of a consultant.  The additional money will, in theory, fund additional (and apparently much-needed) maintenance on the Town’s water and sewer pipes and other infrastructure.  Taking that at face value, we have relatively little choice in the matter but to ensure adequate money to maintain the pipes.

The bottom line is that, right now, our water/sewer bills are about the same as everybody else in the area.  In particular, for a typical family, you’d pay about the same here as you would pay for water and sewer in Fairfax County.  That was the Town’s goal.

But looking forward, our bills are going to continue to rise, at about 10%/year, for the next three years.  The upshot is that the FY 2023 (starting summer 2022) bills will be about 50% higher than the FY 2018 (starting summer 2017) bills were.


Advertising the change in rates.

The Town advertised this most recent rate change, had public hearings, and so on, in its usual fashion.  And to me, the fact that almost nobody was aware of what was about to happen speaks volumes for the ineffectiveness of the Town’s communication efforts.  Not sure I have any idea of how to do better.

In terms of general advertisement to the public, the March Vienna Voice said there was going to be a public hearing on sewer and water rates on April 8.  Like so.  That was one item in a series of announcements about the Town budget.  Near as I can tell, the Vienna Voice never had any writeup of what was being proposed.

march-5

The public hearing was on April 8.  You can see the meeting materials at this link: https://vienna-va.legistar.com/LegislationDetail.aspx… If you pull up the minutes from that meeting, it says “No one from the public came forward to speak.”

That’s it. One line, in the Town newsletter, that said the Town was going to hold a public hearing on the rates, in the context of the overall budget.  A public hearing that nobody attended.  And then the June 2019 Vienna Voice had one line: “The Town’s water and sewer rates are increasing about 10%, or $64 annually as well.” This was in an article on the budget.

So, its not like the Town hid it, but they didn’t exactly make a big deal out of it either before or after the fact.


How much did the rates change?

Here it gets a little tricky.  The rates were raised over the course of two years.  And Vienna charges different rates per 1000 gallons (different “tiers”), depending on how much water you use.  (These “tiers” work like tax brackets, with the cost per gallon rising as the number of gallons used goes up.)

Last year, Vienna reduced the gallon cutoffs for those tiers, and so reduced the amount of water that qualified for the lower rates.   And it raised rates a bit.  This year, it left the tiers alone, but raised rates a bit more.

Of course I put that all in a spreadsheet.  How could I resist.  Here’s what the change in the rate structure looked like.  In addition, the fixed charge (the amount you pay, regardless of the amount used went from $15, to $17.75, to $23.

You can access my Vienna water bill calculator Excel workbook here:

Vienna water bill calculator

Type your estimated quarterly usage into the red cell to see the percent change in your bill at the far lower right.  If I graph the results from that calculation, it looks like this.  Over the two years, bills typically went up just over 20%.  Bills for the highest users went up about 25%.

One thing this does not capture is the rumored presence of a “cap” on summertime sewer rates.  In some localities, there is an assumption that any increased water use in the summer went to outdoor uses and so should be charges only for water, not for sewer use.  They “cap” the sewer charge at whatever the typical winter rate is, for example.   The rumor — which I could not substantiate — is that Vienna used to do that, but no longer does.  There certainly seemed to be no provision for that on my most recent water bill, but I can’t say I tracked that issue closely.  If true, summer bills for those with heavy summertime water use would have gone up by more than the graph indicates.


You ain’t seen nothing yet.

Here’s the part the Town hasn’t done much to advertise.  This increase in rates was based on a recommendation by a consultant.  The idea was that the Town wasn’t doing enough to maintain its sewer and water system, and needed more money to make needed investments in keeping that up.

That all sounds fairly prudent.  And, not shown here, if you compare this year’s rates to (e.g.) combined water and sewer for Fairfax, we’re pretty close to the existing Fairfax County rates.  At least, so says the Town of Vienna in its presentation at last year’s public hearing on water and sewer rates.  (And my independent calculation backs that up.  At the current (FY 2020) rates, a typical customer pays just a bit more in Vienna than in Fairfax County for sewer and water.)

Source:  Combined sewer and water comparison, Town of Vienna Water Rates Presentation 2018-03-26 final.pdf.

So far so good.  We need to do more maintenance, so we’re charging more, and the first year of the increase just put us more-or-less on a par with what Fairfax County charges.

What is not readily apparent, unless you actually read the consultant’s report (.pdf), is that this last quarter’s rate increase was just second of five years of planned rate increases.

Now, sure, the Town has to pass those increases each year, with due notice to the public and so on.  So it’s not like that’s locked in.  And in all fairness, they did include that long-term rate increase in the public hearing last year (.pdf).  And their consultant says it’s the prudent thing to do.

But … I don’t know … you’d think that if this is the plan, the Town would present it as such.  That there would have been some more vigorous attempt at notifying the public before embarking on this five-year plan.

Or, possibly, we’ve just been living in a fool’s paradise.  Maybe the system was depreciating that badly, we have no choice but to maintain, the citizens are going to have to suck it up with respect to the rate increase, so why not do this as quietly as they legally can?  I think that’s a reasonably valid viewpoint, though it’s too consistent with a Town that seems to do a lot of major changes as quietly as it legally can.

So here’s what’s in store, from the consultant’s report cited above:

If anything, the rate changes are back-loaded onto the final year.  Just for grins, let me now redo that calculator, and add the FY 2023 rates to it.  You can download it by clicking the link.

Vienna water bill calculator to 2023

And the upshot is a roughly 50% increase in the water/sewer bills, over five years, for the typical user. 

And that’s the actual plan.  The increase in the water/sewer bills is not 10 percent in for FY 2020.  Although that was enough to get some people upset.  That 10% increase we just saw was the second of five planned increments.  The actual plan is a 50% increase over five years.

I wonder how many people in the Town of Vienna were aware of that?


A few random notes on water usage.

Outdoor

Based on a few internet sources, running your standard lawn sprinkler consumes about 1000 gallons per hour.  At current rates, at the highest tier, that will cost you $16/hour.  At projected 2023 rates, it’ll cost you $20/hour.  Water your lawn for an hour a day, every other day, over a quarter, and it’ll cost you $720 now, and $900 in 2023.

People who are surprised by a high summertime water bill, well, basically shouldn’t be.  Likely they do not realize how much water an average lawn sprinkler can put out.

We use water barrels for outdoor watering.  We made them from surplus soda-syrup barrels.  At the time we made ours, the local bottling plants were more than happy to give those away, because those HDPE plastic barrels cannot be re-used for foods.  They have to be recycled instead.

A weird and under-appreciated side benefit to water barrels is that, with the addition of mosquito dunks, they become mosquito control devices.  I used to screen the openings to keep mosquitoes out of the water.  Now I leave it open and use mosquito dunks.  They lay their eggs in the barrels and the dunks kill the larvae.  I swear I have a lot fewer mosquitoes in my yard since I’ve been doing that.

Finally, we purchased a 1950’s house, complete with a 1950’s zoysia grass lawn.  We will never, ever go back to a conventional lawn.  If you find yourself watering and fertilizing your lawn, consider plugging it with zoysia.  Once it’s established, it requires no care whatsoever.  Turns brown in the winter, though.

Indoor.

For the average household, the single greatest use of water is for flushing the toilets.  By any reasonable measure, replacing an older (5-gallon) or 1980s-era (3.5 gallon) toilet with a modern (1.5 gallon) toilet will pay for itself in short order, as in, a payback period of less than two years.

Source: US EPA

Source:  US EPA.

Finally, FWIW, I’ve tried a lot of low-flow shower heads.  The only one I ever found really acceptable was (something like) this one.  You see all kinds of gizmos that are supposed to make the low-flow showerheads work like a standard one.  Maybe some of them work, but I never found one.  In the end, the simple design of that one worked better than all of the various more complex alternatives.