Photo by PoPville flickr user Pablo Raw
The following was written by by Robert Robinson Chair, DC Consumer Utility Board. PoP-Ed. posts may be written about anything related to the District and submitted via email to princeofpetworth(at)gmail please include PoP-Ed. in the subject line.
“For years DC’s Combined Water and Sewer (CSS) system spewed sewerage into the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers and Rock Creek during heavy storms or snowmelts.
For years, beginning in the 1980s, my DC water bills informed me that I was paying charges to replace the CSS.
I doubt that any of that work was done before 2005.
Now there’s hell to pay.
Low-, middle-, and fixed-income families, senior citizens, churches and nonprofit organizations, and small businesses are paying the lion’s share of the clean-up costs–with ever-rising water bills.
At the heart of the problem is D.C. Water’s $ 2.6 billion system to stop the Combined Sewer System’s overflows from contaminating the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers and Rock Creek, by containing the effluent in a mammoth two-tunnel system and sending it to DC Water’s 153-acre Blue Plains wastewater treatment facility.
The system is funded by the Impervious Areas Charge (IAC) under a Clean Rivers Project created by a 2005 Consent Decree.
But why does St. Paul’s Rock Creek Parish Church cemetery — thick with trees and graves and few impervious roads — pay a $200,000 impervious Area Charge annually, comparable to the $209,000 paid by the Washington, DC Nationals Stadium?
It’s not like the cemetery’s dead are producing stormwater runoff, drinking water, showering, flushing toilets and doing laundry at the rate of a 44,000-seat stadium that operates 19 parking lots.
The reason is inequitable tax rates. The fact is that 92% of DC’s residential properties pay 78% of its IACs.
Mr. Hawkins argues, ” . . . somebody has to pay, and if they don’t pay, other individual ratepayers will have to.”
A case in point is that 40% of DC’s Impervious Surfaces — DC’s roads — are exempt.
Mr. Hawkins should share with DC ratepayers what the District government’s tab for IAC costs is — since someone else will have to pay for it.
DC’s utility rate base is larger than its tax base, because of the federal presence in DC, and because DC is congressionally prevented from taxing DC employees who work here but live in other states.
For this reason, DC’s elected officials treat utility ratepayers as if they were a separate tax base, distinct from those who pay taxes in DC.
Now there are DC ratepayers who are not taxpayers, but there are few DC taxpayers who are not also ratepayers. They tend to be the same people.
And when these rate payers seek relief from the Impervious Areas charges, they find none. Since the IAC was implemented in 2009, not a single appeal has been sustained by DC Water’s “appeals” process. Not one.
Let’s talk about DC government’s disinvestment in our utility infrastructure. Look at the pass-through-costs DC residents pays on DC Water bills:
• a DC government Payment-in-lieu-of-tax (PILOT) fee
• a DC government Right-of-way fee
• a DC government stormwater fee (paid to DOEE)
• SPLASH fee to help those unable to pay their bills
DC’s disinvestment really shows in the surcharges and fees that get tacked onto what residents pay over-and-above the cost of water and sewer services, to wit:
• a Metering fee,
• an Impervious Area Charge (IAC),
• a Water System Replacement Fee,
• 10% monthly late fees on all monthly bills, and
• a suspension and restoration fee, when service is disconnected and restored; and,
• liens against property.
As DC’s utility policies drive ratepayers out of DC, its tax base narrows.
The members of the First Baptist Church on Minnesota Avenue, SE live in DC and are DC Water ratepayers, their church pays DC Water and is a DC Water ratepayer, and the Church’s nonprofits who provide social services pay DC Water are DC Water ratepayers. The same is true for every Jewish, Catholic, Islamic, Baptist, Hindu, Buddhist, Methodist, Episcopal, Baha’i & other congregations in DC.
But even if DC’s low- and middle-income families, churches, nonprofits and small businesses could pay the steep increases proposed by the DC Water Board, the task of providing clean water for the foreseeable future for the Metropolitan Washington Region requires a far more robust rate base than they represent.
So, why aren’t we having this discussion with our neighbors in Virginia and Maryland?
In my view, the DC Water Board’s structure undermines its ability to achieve the broad social and environmental goals clean water represents.
DC’s Public Service Commission has similarly failed to support the interests of ratepayers in power and telecommunications: ratepayers face significant challenges there.
All of these regulators failed to persuade the DC Government officials who appointed them to invest in the utility infrastructure that opens access to a decent quality of life for all,and is an engine for economic development, the creation of local businesses, jobs and DC tax revenue.
That’s an embarrassment.
A starting point to remedy these deficiencies — suggested by the Brookings Institution’s Carol O’Cleireacain’ in her 2012 report Cleaner Waters for the National Capital Region: Sharing the Cost — would be for DC Water and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments to convene a coalition of regional stakeholders including the federal and local governments to discuss options to pay for the Clean Rivers Project.
Please share your ideas on this matter with me.
Chair, DC Consumer Utility Board