- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 27, 2000

In April, the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority raised rates 4.9 percent, and about that same time the city began enforcing a law that directs owners of utilities to pay a fee for accessing public space. The money, Mayor Williams and the D.C. Council said, would enable the city and the utilities to better coordinate and expedite desperately needed road repairs. It was a good plan, or so it seemed.

The problem is compliance would put the city in conflict with two laws and force another increase in water rates. One law directs the owners of utilities to pay a per-foot rental fee for utility lines on public space. But the water authority does not own water and sewer lines. The city does. The water authority is mandated only to operate and maintain them.

The initial fee was 14 cents per linear foot, and officials estimate that, since April, the water authority owes the city about $1 million. The council, however, raised the rates to 88 cents per linear foot. So the fiscal 2001 budget says the water authority will owe $6 million. Authority officials dispute that amount. They say their "contribution" to the road repair fund will be between $14 million and $19 million. Notwithstanding the precise dollar amount, authority officials say the only way they could possibly generate the money is by raising water rates again. The new increase in residential rates could be as low as 10 percent and as high as 13.5 percent. That is out of the question.

Also problematic is the legislation that created the independent water authority, which, until 1996, was part of the Department of Public Works. That law prohibits the authority from using funds received from customers for anything other than water and sewer services. Road repairs do not fall within the parameters of that law, authority officials said.

The legislative and executive branches could easily remedy this obviously sticky situation. But do not count on them. Mr. Williams wants to appoint a chairman of the water authority who will raise rates as the mayor sees fit. Meanwhile, the council's public works chairman, Carol Schwartz, is still suffering political whiplash from her defeat by Mr. Williams in the 1998 mayoral race.

Reaching compromises has not been easy for the mayor and the council, many of whose members, including Mrs. Schwartz, are up for re-election this fall. But surely, on behalf of hard-pressed residents, they can make amends and find a way to exempt the water authority from what otherwise is a reasonable law. To do otherwise would force residents and businesses to see the public-space access "fee" for what it really is another tax.

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