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MDC Water Rates Rising

Some Say Higher Fees Are Unfair In City

By DANIEL E. GOREN, Courant Staff Writer

February 11, 2008

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Metropolitan District Commission customers may want to be on the alert for leaky faucets and running toilets, because the cost of water is going up and will continue to rise for several years.

Beginning last month, most water bills sent to customers in the eight Metropolitan District Commission towns have carried a surcharge to pay for the bonds issued in a $2 billion planned upgrade of the region's sewers and sewage treatment facilities.

That surcharge called a sewer service fee amounts this year to 35 cents per every 100 cubic feet of water used. That's on top of the $2.21 per 100 cubic feet that customers are now paying for water.

According to the MDC, the average residential water bill in the member communities is about $275 per year. That will increase to about $318 during the first year of the sewer service fee.

The surcharge which appears only on bills for customers who get both sewer and water service from the MDC will increase each year for about a decade, capping off at about $4.50 per 100 cubic feet, a rate that will still be competitive or better than most other water companies, MDC officials said.

Commissioners on the district's 29-member board opted for the surcharge after the state legislature would not allow the agency to charge all its water users including nonmember towns, such as Glastonbury, that only buy MDC water to pay for the sewer upgrade. The MDC's charter says it cannot charge a sewer service fee to those who don't receive both the district's water and sewer services.

Rather than face the political consequences of simply increasing the rates assessed each town based on the property values a system that benefited Hartford over its wealthier suburban neighbors, such as West Hartford it was decided to spread the cost equally among customers with MDC sewer and water service.

The new formula, agreed upon unanimously by the commission, was urged by suburban commissioners, where higher property assessments would have meant paying a larger share of the massive sewer project. But passing the fee directly to water users has its own consequences: the poor and less-well-to-do will pay the same as more wealthy customers.

"Per household cost, there had been a subsidy that was happening primarily for the city of Hartford," said Jeff Wright, a commissioner from Newington and the town's mayor. "Now, people are going to pay primarily for their usage, and that subsidy is going to be gone, which I think is going to create some relief for the majority of the member towns."

Wright compares water service to any other utility. "Within the same utility company, why should one payer pay more than another based on what your income level is?" Wright said. "The phone companies, the cable companies, the electrical companies it doesn't matter what your zip code is, you'll pay the same rate."

The MDC and its member towns Hartford, West Hartford, East Hartford, Newington, Wethersfield, Rocky Hill, Windsor and Bloomfield are under federal and state mandate to fix the ailing sewers, which dump untreated sewage into area rivers, streets and basements during dozens of heavy rains each year. The massive project will take place over the next 15-plus years.

Wright said that basing the charge on water usage has two other advantages. It encourages customers to conserve water by turning on sprinkler systems less often, using water-efficient appliances and installing water-saving shower heads and toilets. It also provides relief to governments of the member towns, which would have seen their budgets crushed by the weight of the $2 billion project and their bond ratings dragged down, Wright said. Without the sewer service fee, projections showed that the MDC portion of Newington's municipal budget eventually would have dwarfed the town's police budget, he said.

But some say that forcing Hartford residents who generally are poorer to pay the same amount places an unfair burden on those who can least afford it.

Dr. Larry Deutsch, city councilman in Hartford, said the sewer charge, even if assessed equally to all, sets up a system with a "regressive impact." As the cost of water rises, those who are more wealthy make choices about how often to wash their car or water their lawn, while a poor person decides "whether to give their baby a bath or not."

"This is a shifting toward a more regressive payment structure in general," Deutsch said. "It is the same as the cost of gasoline going up or the cost of oil heating in your house going up. You could say it is fair in a literal, small sense, but it is the poor that wind up going without heat in their homes. It is the poor that have to skimp on electricity and choose between gasoline for their car and medicine."

MDC Chairman William DiBella, a commissioner from Hartford, said Deutsch is "not wrong at all" in his assessment, but said the Hartford delegation on the MDC board had to make a tough compromise to ensure that the sewer project went forward. It came down to what DiBella described as the crux of good government "the art of the deal," he called it.

That compromise, DiBella said, meant the $2 billion project would be based on sewer service fees, while the operating and maintenance budget of the MDC would continue to be based on property value, largely to Hartford's benefit.

"The suburban towns were really upset, because under the existing formula, Hartford had an advantage," he said. "In order to get this thing done, there had to be some kind of a compromise. I think everyone felt that something was being taken away from them. No one walked away unscathed. And that is true of every political compromise. No one walks away and says, 'Hey, I made out like a bandit.'

"We knew there was no way we could sell this to the suburban towns if we said, 'OK, here is the deal. You are going to see an increase of 17 percent each year and your property tax is going to go through the roof.' They would have gone to war. We couldn't have done it."

DiBella also said that Hartford had to take the long view of the upgrade project, the vast majority of which will be done in Hartford and benefit the city in the form of newly paved streets and new sewers.

And as members of the water-rich MDC, DiBella said the fiscal future of Hartford and other member towns should be secure.

"No one has the water we have," DiBella said. "It is liquid gold. As the years go out, more and more people are going to be buying that water. It is a certain revenue stream. It is better than oil."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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