For decades the Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD) has deferred maintenance, expanded to the suburbs, and chosen not to prioritize storm water management or separation of sanitary and storm sewer flows (combined in older sewers). We have a system designed to illegally release combined sewage and storm water into public spaces at things called “Combined Sewer Overflows” (CSOs) whenever there is heavy rain. Eleven to fourteen billion gallons of (diluted) raw sewage per year gets dumped into tributaries of Mill Creek, Mill Creek itself, the Little Miami River, in public parks like Mt Airy, into the Ohio River directly (and into some people’s basements). You can see CSOs all along Mill Creek above Northside, and a really big one at the bottom of Lick Run (South Fairmont).
MSD and similar systems around the country are under Federal court orders to fix this problem. Cost ing almost four $ billion is why sewer charges on our water bills have been jumping out of control. What would be a fair way to allocate these legacy costs from the past? One can imagine several. Clearly costs of regional infrastructure improvements have little to do with current water use (the basis for billing sewer charges now). A property tax might be a reasonable contributor, a common revenue source for public funding. Perhaps a surcharge on current residential and commercial water use could be another legitimate contributor but with a sliding scale so that the big users pay their fair share (and are incentivized to conserve). This would be like a graduated sales tax. Perhaps industry should pay more – right now institutional, municipal, commercial and industrial users pay only about 37% of total sewer charges. Recently Cincinnati was declared (by the local business community) the seventh most business-friendly city in America. Taxes have been low and evidently water/sewer has been cheap. Maybe it’s time for commercial and industrial users to draw down their debt to the system and pick up a big share of the sewer upgrade. Instead, for single family/quarterly-billed users (who made up 76% of accounts in 2014) MSD levies a whopping minimum charge which for 90% of accounts amounts to more than half of their total sewer bill. Each account pays the same minimum charge no matter how little water they use. Analysis of MSD billing data shows that almost 25% of single family accounts never used enough water to get above the minimum charge in 2014; they paid $470 for using 7.2 % of water consumed by single families but paid 16.3% of the sewer charges. For small, frugal users, this means paying sewer charges as much as $40 per 100 cu. ft. of drinking water used while the top 10% of users pay less than $8.50 per 100 cu. ft. For all residential users (including apartment dwellers) the minimum charge makes up 64% of their sewer charges; for all non residential users, it makes up 41%. Compare the current $470 minimum charge with the annual $68 minimum charge for drinking water itself. Some utilities have no minimum charges for water (like Milford). The MSD rate structure is essentially a non-deductable poll tax, probably the most regressive means of funding essential projects in a modern civil society. This inequitable rate structure threatens the political viability of the regional sewer upgrade upon which our future urban environment depends. Sadly, low income users who pay only the minimum charge and who try hard to reduce their water consumption can achieve no reduction in their sewer charges. Annually MSD goes through the ritual of paying consultants (Black and Veach) to recommend new rates based on projected operating and capital costs. This mandate has never seriously examined social equity issues but this year, apparently reflecting rising anxiety at the County Commission and MSD, they offered four rate choices. One increases the minimum charge from $117 to $127 per quarter (single families), while another actually lowered the minimum charge to $79. This reveals that the basis for previous choices was at best questionable; one wonders why not $59 or $29. Just eliminating the current discount for high volume users, increasing the minimum charge for nonresidential users by 35% and increasing the commodity charge for water used by 20% would cut the single family minimum charge by more than half. It is scandal time on sewer charges and all good citizens should demand an dramatic adjustment in 2016 rates to a much more equitable formula as well as a commitment to on-going public review and deliberation on the rate structure and what share institutional, commercial and industrial users should be paying.
Robert Park is a volunteer for the local Sierra Club and the 1-Good-Job Coalition, and a public health researcher residing in Anderson.
1228 Schirmer Ave
Anderson OH 45230
513-293-4462 (c) 513-533-8572 (w)