Residents shocked by summer utility bills from the City

cof utility bill snippet
Snippet of a City of Ferndale utility invoice (March 15, 2017). Photo: My Ferndale News

City of Ferndale water and sewer customers recently received utility bills for the 2-month period from June 5th to August 4th. According to City staff, many were shocked by an unexpected increase in the invoice total.

City Communications Officer Riley Sweeney said phone and foot traffic to City Hall has been steady this week. The invoices were sent Friday, August 31st and there was an immediate uptick in calls from customers when City Hall opened Tuesday, after the 3-day weekend, he said.

The City’s response has been to send out workers to reread the meters and look for leaks at the addresses where complaints came from, Sweeney explained. The result of these investigations have provided no reason to believe there are any problems with meters or data collection procedures.

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2 things changed this year that are likely reasons for the higher amounts. How charges are computed during summer months and an increase in the rate used to calculate sewer charges based on water use.

In past years, summer utility bills were computed not from actual water use but from an average use based on previous off-season billings. This was intended, according to City Council discussions, to offset the increased water use that was not likely to result in an increase in sewer use since lawn and garden watering puts the water into the ground and not into the sewer.

The Ferndale City Council approved using actual water usage billing instead of the off-season averaging as they struggled to find ways to pay for a planned wastewater plant upgrade and expansion.

In addition, by a vote of 4 to 3 during the June 6, 2017 City Council meeting, councilmembers approved increasing sewer usage rates by 3% per year over the next 3 years (an increase of 9.3% over 3 years) and increasing connection fees for new developments 25% per year over the next 3 years (an increase of 95% or nearly double over 3 years). Councilmembers Rebecca Xczar, Greg Hansen and Teresa Taylor were opposed to the mix of increases voted on. It was also at this time the summer “discount” was eliminated beginning this summer.

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Utility charges are based on water usage for City of Ferndale utility customers. Included with water charges are sewer, storm drain and an included utility tax. Sewer charge is a result of multiplying water use by the current sewer rate. When water usage goes up, so does the sewer charge. Storm drain is a flat rate paid equally by all utility customers. There is also a 9% utility tax that is part of water, sewer and storm drain charges. So, again, as water usage goes up, so will the utility tax.

Sweeney said water usage this summer is very close to what was used last summer. He pointed out that when people think of summer water usage they consider the water used to irrigate their lawns and gardens. But, Sweeney explained, they are also likely to use more water as a result of things like taking more showers and doing more laundry as a result of increased outside activities.

“We ask anyone with a question or concern to please contact us so we can identify those situations where there is something we can address,” Sweeney said.

Sweeney said City Council will be looking at ways to revise the sewer rate structure over the upcoming months now that they have better information about costs associated with the wastewater plant upgrade and expansion. “Anyone with recommendations on how to best charge for water and sewer use are asked to pass along their recommendations to the City Councilmembers,” Sweeney said. Emails sent to citycouncil@cityofferndale.org will be delivered to every councilmember’s email address.

At Tuesday’s City Council meeting, a couple spoke during the public comment period to let councilmembers know of their frustration and shock after receiving a $500 utility billing from the City. Lenard and Rosemary Webb said they relocated to Ferndale last fall to be closer to family and, being newly retired, they were on a fixed income. Leonard told the councilmembers and City staff, “If we had known how this was coming in, we might have located somewhere else.”

 

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