Wave of opposition
PHOENIX — Blue signs demanding "water rate fairness" have been springing up all over town, thanks to a former City Council member who believes the city's new water rates are exorbitant.
Steve Schulman said he hopes to raise citizens' awareness with the signs, which read, "Phoenix Needs Water Rate Fairness: One Meter = One Bill."
"You've just got to get the message out somehow," he said. "The best signs are at First and Colver because the mayor has to pass them every day."
Water rates have been a hot topic in town since 2011, when the council approved a rate increase that allows for a 50 cent raise each year. Discussions became more heated in recent months after residents once included in the smaller Charlotte Ann Water District were extended city water service.
The properties, near Phoenix High School and along Cheryl Lane, have been inside city limits for a number of years but for unknown reasons continued to be charged the special district's rates.
Brookside Townhouse Apartments owners Dottie and Jack Steinhoefl told city officials their water rates for four apartment buildings along Cheryl Lane jumped from $200 to $1,200 a month.
The Steinhoefls displayed a blue sign in front of their property and signs were placed at various businesses, residences and intersections around town.
Schulman says city rates are higher than surrounding towns and that the city assesses a $33.50 base rate unfairly, charging vacant buildings and assessing a monthly base rate for mobile homes and apartments that are connected to a single meter with other units.
For example, each unit in a 40-unit mobile home park is billed at the city base rate even though all units are attached to a single meter.
Steinhoefl told City Council members that her water bill for 32 apartment units jumped from about $200 to $1,200 despite the complex having only one water meter for each of four buildings.
Mayor Jeff Bellah said the water cost for 32 units should, in fact, be closer to $1,200, reflecting the cost of water for 32 households rather than just four.
"The advantage for apartments and mobile homes, they do use less and they'll probably never pay beyond the base rate (which includes 5,000 gallons per month)," Bellah said.
While a consultant is reviewing the city's methodology for charging for water, Bellah contends that the base rate per residence or business is intended to cover infrastructure costs and to be fair.
Bellah said the council is aware of citizens' concerns but is determined to wait for the results of the consultant's study, which should be presented in a special council meeting at 6:30 p.m. March 19.
Schulman, who co-moderates a "Phoenix City Council Watch" Facebook page, said citizens' concerns have been ignored and that recalling council members has been discussed, "but we have to wait for them to be in office for six months before they can be recalled."
Schulman said he started putting signs out on Tuesday and would make them available to residents and business owners.
Schulman said, "It's just a way to raise awareness of the problem and hopefully get some people to come to the council and say, 'What the heck's going on?' "
Before a rate increase in 2011, city water rates included a $28 base rate (for 2,000 gallons) with usage rates of $1.75 per 1,000 gallons up to 10,000 gallons and $3.75 per 1,000 gallons above 10,000.
The current rates, approved just over a year ago, are $33.50 for the first 5,000 gallons, plus $1.91 per 1,000 gallons between 5,000 and 10,000 gallons and $2.25 per 1,000 gallons above 10,000.
City officials say mobile home parks and apartment buildings connected to only a few meters or a single meter now pay one base rate per unit regardless of the number of connected meters. Vacant homes and other buildings pay a base rate whether water is used or not.
Bellah conceded that better education could help citizens understand the base water rate, and that some minor changes could be in order. However, he said, the base rate is necessary to provide water to residents.
"As far as our rates, they're closer to what the city needs to do business than they have been," Bellah said. "We're open to hearing citizens' concerns, but we're not going to do anything until we hear from this consultant. The rate increase last year actually has put our water department back into the black and stable again. We're understandably reluctant to make a quick change without really looking at it.
"I think the city needs to do a better job of educating," he said. "I'm hearing that citizens don't feel the commercial users are paying as much, but I looked at a bill for one of our larger users and they're paying $2,500 during summer months. They're definitely not getting off for the same cost as a home."
Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.