October 2, 2012

Poway's 47%

Dear Poway Homeowners,
You are getting screwed. Bigtime. And no, I am no referring to the PUSD bond fiasco. It's your sewer bills.

OK, you are not ALL getting screwed. Around 47- 50% of you are are paying substantially higher sewer rates than other Poway sewer users pay. It's been that way for more than 30 years. Maybe 40.

It is kind of a well kept secret. If you were to search The City of Poway's website, you would find a link to the City's water/sewer rates and fees , but you won't be able to find the real sewer rates for single family residential listed anywhere on the City's webpage.

Poway water/sewer customers have 4 line items on their bills: 1) water basic service, 2) water consumption, 3) sewer basic service and 4) sewer consumption.  The basic service fees are a fixed fee, based on the size of your water pipe and/or your type of service (residential, commercial, industrial, etc). The water consumption charge is based on how many units of water you consume. The sewer consumption charge is much more complex. And convoluted.

Most properties in Poway don't have sewer meters. The sewer consumption is calculated a bit differently for each category of user ( residential, multi-family, commercial, etc.) For example, multi-family housing are pegged for sewer flow equal to 85% of their water use for that period. Commercial properties sewer consumption is figured at 90% of their water consumption. Single family residential properties sewer use is calculated at 85% of the average from the lowest use during the 3 previous winter periods.

In the charts below you can see that the sewer rate is $3.16/unit  for apartment houses, churches and schools. It varies from $3.16 to $6.40/ unit  for commercial and industrial customers.

For single family residential customers, the City actually uses a tiered charge pricing format instead of a rate. The charges increase as use increases, sortof. Look at Tier 2. The house that uses 6 units, and the house that uses 12 units both are charged $40.98. There was twice as much flushing and showering going on in the house that used 12 units, but they paid the same fee as the house poured half as much water down the drain.

For some reason, the city calculates everyone's sewer commodity fee as a rate, except for the single family residential category. The true rates you pay are hidden in the City's chart. I've calculated the actual rates in the chart below. The results are a bit surprising.

The rates in the chart vary from $1.76/unit to $23.23/unit. If someone uses more than 57 units, their rates are even lower. If someone uses 0 units of water, they still have to pay a sewer charge of $23.23.
My sewer use is calculated at about 10 units.  I pay $40.98, which comes to about $4.00/unit. The person who uses 51 units pays just under $2.00/unit. How can it be fair to charge higher rates to those who use less? What a nice break for those who consume a lot of water!

How did it happen that almost half of the residential single family homes are subsidizing the other half? Originally, everybody paid the same fixed sewer charge. Then, the fixed sewer charge was tiered to make it more fair. Then, a fixed charge was separated from the tiered charge. So now, we pay a fixed charge (basic service fee) and a tiered charge (consumption fee). As sewer charges increased, people who used very little winter water, got hit with large, disproportionate bills. In 2006, the City paid a consultant to study the sewer rates. The consultant (RFC) found that if the City used a uniform rate, ratepayers in Tiers 1, 2 and 3 would enjoy a savings of 22% to 44%. Those in Tiers 4 through 7 would pay 2% to 51% more. Guess who complained and convinced the council not to charge a uniform rate for the sewer?

Funny thing,  those very same folks went apoplectic about 2 years ago when the city imposed a multi-tiered  conservation water rate. The difference between that water rate structure and the current sewer charge structure is that with the conservation water rate structure, everyone paid the same rate for their first x number of units of water, and the same rate for their next y units of water, etc. People were only charged higher rates for the water usage beyond each tier.  The people who used a lot of water said it was unfair. The council heard them, and changed the water rates back to a uniform rate. Well, almost uniform. Now, everybody pays the same rate for their first 199 units and more for their next z units. I never really got why everyone screamed that it was unfair  if we did not all pay the same rate, but then they were OK with charging people more for their 200th unit and beyond. Was it about fairness or advantage?

Speaking of advantage, at a council meting and at the recent candidate's forum, Councilmember Cunningham proposed that the excess money in the sewer fund be used to lower water rates. Really? First the City overcharges the low water user on their sewer bills and then the City wants to take the extra money to lower the water bills of the big water users who are no longer paying conservation rates. Freaking unbelievable.

I have been complaining about the unfair sewer rates for years. Every councilmember is aware that the low water users are being screwed. All of the councilmembers are OK with it, including the one who puts a quote from Ghandi on her emails. Not one councilmember has made any effort to change the way Poway charges for the sewer.  It certainly says something about the way "they serve the community" to me.  I have no respect for those who would charge the low water users more per unit just because they can, and because it pleases their more advantaged friends.  The situation will not change until enough of the low water users become more aware and make enough of a ruckus to demand the change. Will you help make a ruckus?


Anonymous said...

I've seen this argument of yours before. It has merit, but it still lacks important considerations.

Please correct me if I'm wrong:
Estimates vary--but I understand an average user uses about 4 units, 8 units per Poway billing cycle, of water a month. This does not include landscape use. So---if the household in your argument is using 51 units, that equates to 6+ people. Or possibly they have the same number of people in their household as you--and same as you, they use 10 units that ultimately could go down the sewer. The remaining 41 units are used for well-managed irrigation that never touches the sewer. YET--that family is paying $100.17 vs. the $40.98 you pay--for the same sewer use.

PowayBlog said...

The average residential single family sewer user is somewhere in tier 3 which is 13-19 units in a 2 month billing period. This figure is 85% of the average water use in the lowest billing period for the previous 3 winters, when landscape use is at it's lowest. I have been able to turn my irrigation off in all but the very driest winters. I've ended up in tier 3 twice because if having to irrigate during dry years but I pay more per unit to do that than someone in tiers 4-7.