COLUMBIA — A recent change in the way the city calculates sewer bills was intended to make the system more equitable, but the superintendent of the utility is warning that it might have the unintended consequence of substantially raising many residents' bills.
The city, for years, calculated utility customers' monthly sewer bills by looking at their average water use during January, February and March — a system known as winter-quarter averaging. At its Dec. 5 meeting, however, the Columbia City Council voted to base the average figure on water use during October, November and December.
Here's how the recent change in sewer billing practices can affect how much a utility customer might pay:
Residents generally use more water in warmer months, primarily by watering lawns and gardens. Let's say a household uses the following amounts of water per month during a six-month period. Keep in mind that 100 cubic feet of water, or 1 ccf, is 748 gallons.
- October: 20 ccfs
- November: 10 ccfs
- December: 3 ccfs
- January: 4 ccfs
- February: 2 ccfs
- March: 3 ccfs
Under the old method of winter-quarter averaging, which was based on water use from January through March, this household would have an average use of 3 ccfs per month. After adding in the $6.35 monthly base charge, its bill would be $12.38 per month, or $148.56 per year.
Under the new method of winter-quarter averaging, which is based on water use from October through December, the same household would have average water use of 11 ccfs per month. Add in the base charge, and the bill would be $28.46 a month, or $341.52 a year.
That means this sample household would pay $192.96 more per year under the current method.
While this user may not represent the average Columbia water user, city Sewer Superintendent Bill Weitkemper has provided the Missourian examples of actual sewer customers who will pay as much as $420 more per year. Residents of Columbia who do not change water use during the warmer months, particularly to water a lawn or garden, will likely see only minor changes in their bills.
That move, approved by a 5-2 council vote, sought to remedy what some officials perceived as inequitable sewer billing because of a change the council made in March. This change altered the billing method for sewer customers whose monthly water use averaged 200 cubic feet or less during the the winter months. Instead of paying the winter-average rate year round, these residents were required to pay a rate reflecting actual monthly water use.
Council members intended for that change to raise sewer bills for customers who leave town during the winter and have abnormally low winter-quarter averages. But after complaints from 16 residents who saw summer sewer bills increase, the council reconsidered.
Mayor Bob McDavid said, at the Dec. 5 meeting, that the most recent switch was another effort to make billing more equitable. City Finance Director John Blattel said the move should make more people eligible for the new minimum winter-quarter average of 100 cubic feet, so they would not have to pay for actual use during warmer months.
One hundred cubic feet of water is 748 gallons. The average American family of four uses a little more than half of that in a day, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
After tabling the measure in November, and after about three years of discussion about sewer billing practices between the council and city staff, it was clear Dec. 5 that First Ward Councilman Fred Schmidt wanted to be done with the debate.
"I would prefer to go with staff's recommendation simply because of the complexity of this situation," Schmidt said at the meeting. "But I will go with whatever will get this thing passed tonight."
City Sewer Superintendent Bill Weitkemper spoke at the Dec. 5 meeting and said he feared the change in winter-quarter averaging months would have unintended consequences. Citing 2010 statistics from the Water and Light Department, he said water use was 40 percent higher during the months of October through December compared with January through March, mostly because many residents are still watering their lawns in October and early November.
Fifth Ward Councilwoman Helen Anthony, who joined Second Ward Councilman Jason Thornhill in opposing the Dec. 5 ordinance, echoed Weitkemper's sentiments. She recommended the council hold off on any change until the city can develop a more accurate analysis.
Weitkemper has been a longtime critic of the city's sewer-billing practices. At the March 21 meeting, he told the council that it should switch the months used to calculate winter-quarter averages only for customers who actually leave the city during cold-weather months.
The council didn't take Weitkemper's advice at that time. But nine months later, it adopted the change in winter-quarter averaging months, but it applied the change to all sewer customers. Weitkemper said that was a mistake, too.
"If your solution to a problem causes other people problems, then it's not a good solution," Weitkemper said. "I think this is going to be a real disaster."
Weitkemper's solution would require the city to analyze the water-use patterns of customers with low winter-quarter averages and to bill them differently. Council members and city staff, though, said the city lacks the technology to do that.
City Manager Mike Matthes said at the Dec. 5 meeting that the city's sewer billing system is 13 years old.
Blattel said that while the updated measures aren't perfect, they represent the best the city can do with an outdated system. He hopes upgrades that will be explored this fiscal year will help solve the problem completely.
Weitkemper thinks the council should have gone back and reassessed the whole system of sewer billing before taking action.
"They should have just eliminated the minimum charge and put it back the way it was prior to March 21, 2011," Weitkemper said. "Then they should analyze the low-usage accounts and determine if there is a problem."