- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 3, 2007

City officials yesterday said that eight years of rate increases planned by the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority will “break the backs” of low-income customers and that the agency should look elsewhere to offset its expenses.

“It’s definitely a huge problem for D.C. ratepayers,” said D.C. Council member Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat and chairman of the council’s Committee on Public Works and the Environment. “How are people ever going to be able to afford this?”

WASA officials have proposed increasing customers’ utility bills between 7 percent and 9.5 percent each year until 2015 to pay for capital improvements and satisfy clean-water regulations.

City Administrator Dan Tangherlini, nominated by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty to sit on the 11-member WASA board of directors, said he would review the plan.

“We’re definitely going to take a hard look at the rate-increase proposal to ensure that an increase is justifiable,” he said.

The rate increases would begin with a 7.5 percent rate increase effective Oct. 1, if approved by the agency’s board of directors, increasing the average residential customer’s bill by $3.42 a month.

Officials also plan an 8.5 percent rate increase in 2009 and 9.5 percent increases in 2010 and 2011.

“I’m very skeptical until somebody tells me they really have gone from bottom up through that budget to see where money can be saved,” said council member Mary M. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat and a member of Mr. Graham’s committee. “Until they do that, my instinct would be to question those kind of increases.”

The proposed rate increases come after the agency raised water and sewer retail rates by more than 68 percent from 1996 to 2006, according to a report published Tuesday by D.C. Auditor Deborah K. Nichols.

In that same period, the average monthly customer bill increased by $21.94, or nearly 92 percent.

The huge jump stemmed largely from a 42.6 percent rate increase in 1997, which WASA general manager Jerry N. Johnson said was needed to make up for no increase in rates and a lack of system maintenance during the 10 years before the agency was created in 1996.

The new increases would go toward paying for projects that include $443 million to replace 34,000 lead service lines in the District by 2016 and funding $568 million in wastewater-treatment plant projects.

A federally mandated program to reduce sewer overflow in the Anacostia and Potomac rivers and Rock Creek over a 20-year period also will cost $2 billion.

Mr. Johnson said increases are considered with “empathy” for the customer.

The agency has created programs to help offset costs for low-income customers, including one administered through the Greater Washington Urban League, which assists residents in paying their bill from a fund made up of corporate and customer donations.

WASA’s funding for operations, improvements and debt financing comes through usage fees, federal grants and the sale of revenue bonds.

The agency also is considering a new rate structure for sewer charges that could provide “some relief to some residents” in the future, Mr. Johnson said.

“We’ve tried to factor in some mechanisms to offer some relief for the persons who are having the most difficulty with the bills,” Mr. Johnson said. “Otherwise, we don’t have any other sources of funds.”

Mr. Graham, whose committee held oversight hearings on WASA in March, has recommended that the council require the agency to contract for a budget review to identify savings and potentially offset the rate increases.

The council member, who also sits on the Metro board of directors, pointed out that transit agency officials rejected a $70 million proposed fare increase for its customers and instead looked for savings within its budget.

“I’m extremely troubled” about the WASA proposals, Mr. Graham said. “I think it’s going to break the backs of low-income and poor ratepayers in the District of Columbia.”

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