Holmberg: Why is Richmond’s base water and sewer fee so high?

Posted at 12:27 AM, Jul 10, 2012
and last updated 2012-07-10 00:28:08-04

RICHMOND, Va. (WTVR)--Why is Richmond’s base water and sewer fee – just under $50 a month – so high?

“Fifty dollars, 49 dollars a month for your first glass of water. To me, that’s immoral,” said Scott Burger with the Sierra Club. He’s started an online petition to get city officials to revisit the base fee and recent hike in the water rate.

He believes the base fee – which is water and sewage combined – is the highest in the nation. He’s already gotten more than 700 signatures in the week he’s had the petition up. [You can sign the petition here]

Everyone pays the base fee, rich to poor. CBS 6 spoke with residents who say it’s too much. For some, it could push them over the edge in terms of not being able to pay their bills in this tough economy.

“Richmond sells water to surrounding counties,” Burger said, “and the counties in turn sell it to their residents for a smaller minimum residential water rate than Richmond.”

Bob Steidel, director of Richmond’s Department of Utilities, said every citizen in Richmond, “as part of your rate, you not only pay for, for instance, the wastewater treatment plant, but you also pay for the floodwall downtown. You pay for the combined sewer system . . .

Richmond like, so many of the oldest cities in the country, has an antiquated sewage system that mixes what you flush with storm runoff. During heavy rains, the system is overwhelmed and raw sewage gets dumped straight into the James dozens of times a year, millions of gallons.

The cost of fixing that is huge – and they’re working on it. The city also has to put a new roof on its vast water storage basin in Byrd Park, Steidel said. They have to maintain the canal system and other aspects of the city’s water system. That’s why the fee is set where it is.

Burger spoke at City Council Monday night, getting support from some council members who have been hearing complaints about the water bills from constituents.

Steidel also spoke. He said the current rates were previously discussed and approved and he will be bringing other rate options to council for the next budget, including a base rate scaled to income. Bottom line, though, he said, Richmond’s old water and sewage system has to be paid for, somehow.

“Other cities have to deal with the same problems,” Burger said. “There’s no reason Richmond has to have this huge burden on the poor.”