What's Up With That? Flat sewer rate reflects cost of service

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

Published:

 

It has puzzled me that a household with one person pays the same amount for wastewater (just went up to $70 a month) as a family of four or more. I was told that the wastewater department doesn't have a way to monitor the amount of sewage each household generates. Do you know if charging a flat rate is a common practice for other city/county entities?

— Sam Osaki, Hazel Dell

Sam, picture this: Each and every day, the Clark Regional Wastewater District collects as much as 8 million gallons of sewage from 25,500 homes and businesses.

That picture doesn't address your question. But 8 million gallons of sewage … it's quite a picture.

Anyway, here's a quick correction. As of this year, Sam, you started paying the wastewater district $70 every two months — that is, $35 a month — for the privilege of collecting your single-family household wastewater. John Peterson, general manager of the district, said this is on the low end of local utility charges, which tend to run from $30 to more than $60 a month. There are seven sewer utilities in Clark County, he said.

Of those seven, he said, four use the same flat-rate approach as Clark Regional Wastewater District, while the other three use what's called the "consumptive" model — which means estimating outflow based on metered inflow of water to each home. Four to three is a pretty typical ratio, according to Peterson, who said that 60 to 70 percent of all utilities use the flat rate.

Here's why Clark Regional Wastewater District uses it. First, switching to that estimated-outflow-based-on-metered-inflow model would really jack up the utility's administrative costs. Some people would enjoy lower bills while some would pay more, he said, but overall, "the total dollars billed to all customers would be higher than our flat-rate system."

Second, Peterson said, the amount of flow from your home doesn't necessarily translate into an actual cost to the system. "For example, when we clean or repair a sewer line in a neighborhood, the cost for this service is not directly affected by the amount of flow the different customers put into the system," he said.

We're back to that picture of 8 million gallons. No matter how many gallons one person or household may contribute to that, the cost is more or less the same for the Clark Regional Wastewater District. So the flat rate "best fits the actual cost" of delivering service to customers, he said. Even utilities that do estimated-outflow billing, he said, build in a relatively high minimum "base rate" — a flat rate — for all customers and then add the estimated outflow charge on top of that. That's what the city of Vancouver does.

For seven years, from 2006 to 2012, CRWWD held the wastewater rate at $34 per month. "Of course, there was normal inflation occurring during those 7 years, so we are now in a period of modest inflationary adjustments," Peterson said. The rate went up $1 for 2013 and will continue to rise $1 per year for the next three years, winding up at $38 per month — $76 per bill — in 2016. "Even with these adjustments, we will still be one of the lowest-cost sewer providers in our area and region," Peterson said.

"This question most often comes to us from senior citizens," he added, who "tend to use less water than a typical residence and are understandably concerned about their sewer bills." A low-income senior citizen discount rate, reducing your bill by 20 or 35 percent, is available. Take a look at http://crwwd.com/senior-discount.html or call 360-993-8803.

Peterson said multifamily residences are charged a lower rate than single-family residences: $28 per month.


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