FERNDALE, Wash. — Ferndale utility customers are receiving April 30th billings this week and for about half of them the amount billed for sewer service was not as expected.
According to city staff, a problem in programming the billing system with the new rate plan resulted in errors on the February 28th billings and corrections were made with the April billing.
Beginning this year, City of Ferndale utilities customers began paying for water, sewer and storm drain (surface water runoff) services under a new rate plan.
For the past 2 years, sewer rates have been based on actual water usage during each billing period. In years prior, summer sewer charges were based on an average of winter water use. This was done to prevent sewer billings from going up due to summer garden and yard watering that does not increase sewer use.
Under the new sewer rate plan, there is a return to average water use calculation. The average for each residence is to be computed before the start of each year and used to calculate the sewer charge for the residence for the entire calendar year. According to city staff, this average was not used for the February billing.
According to city staff, approximately 50% of those receiving utility bills had water usage at or near what their average would have been and, as a result, were billed at or near what they should have for sewer in February. The other 50% used more or less than their average water usage for last year and were charged more or less than they should have based on that usage. Their April bills were then adjusted to correct for the February error.
There was no communication from the city regarding either the February error or the April correction which led to some city utility customers contacting city hall asking why their bills were so much different. Today, the city issued an acknowledgement of the error and subsequent correction on their website.
There was a letter signed by Mayor Greg Hansen included in the April utility invoice mailing regarding assistance available to utility customers in light of the current COVID-19 crisis.
In 2017, the city came under fire due to unexpected changes in utility billings over several billing periods as a result of using past averages to compute utility billings while water meters were buried under snow and then issuing adjustments.
In 2018, an end to water use averaging and an increase in sewer rates resulted in extraordinarily high summer utility bills for some. A retired couple spoke during a city council public comment period at that time to let councilmembers know of their frustration and shock after receiving a $500 utility billing saying, “If we had known how this was coming in, we might have located somewhere else.”
Numerous reports of large variances on City of Ferndale utility billings have been made to My Ferndale News over the past few years. While some have been the result of leaks, in many cases utility customers reported city staff having investigated for leaks and finding none leaving no explanation for why the bills were so high.
City staff say they can grant 1-time “courtesy waivers” in the event of a leak or, in some cases, unexplained but recorded high water volume.