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By Sean Gorman April 22, 2013

Dwight Jones says his budget would lower water bills for half of Richmond homes

Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones sees his plan to overhaul the city’s water and wastewater rates as a glass half full.

His plan cuts in half the base rates that all customers pay simply to have access to the city’s water system. It also more than doubles a second charge to customers based on the amount of water they use and flush into the sewer system.

"Through this rate structure change, an estimated 50 percent of our residential households will see a decrease in their water and wastewater bills," Jones said in a March 12 news release announcing the plan.

We wondered if the mayor was correct.

Under his plan, the monthly base rate charged to all customers for water and wastewater service would drop from $49.40 to $26.11. Meanwhile, the second monthly payment based on the volume of water used would rise from $4.22 to $9.03 for every 100 cubic feet that comes into their taps or leaves their home as wastewater. That 100 cubic feet, listed as a "ccf" on a resident’s water bill, amounts to about 750 gallons -- roughly 15 bathtubs full.

The new rates are part of Jones’ proposal for a Richmond budget that is scheduled for a City Council vote May 13. Jones said his rates are not aimed at generating more revenues but were designed to shift more of the burden of supporting the utility to the residents who use the most water.

Tammy Hawley, a spokeswoman for the mayor, sent us a Department of Public Utilities chart breaking down the number of residential customers by their water use. The chart showed that 25,904 customers were billed for using 400 cubic feet or less each month in the 2012 fiscal year, the most recently completed budget cycle.

That comes to about half of the city’s 51,832 residential customers.

Another chart Hawley sent shows that anyone charged for using 400 cubic feet or less would see lower bills. That’s because the increase in their volume fee would be less than the savings they would get from the halving of the base rate.

People right at that 400 cubic foot threshold now pay $66.28 a month. The new rates would drop their monthly bills to $62.23 -- a savings of $4.05. The less water they use, the greater their savings.

For example, customers who use 200 cubic feet  would save $13.67 each month. Their monthly bills, now $57.84, would drop to $44.17.

City charts show that the biggest savers would be the 13.7 percent of customers who use "0 ccf" a month. That doesn’t mean these households don’t use water, just that they consumed less than the 750 gallons threshold necessary to trigger a volume charge, said Angela Fountain, a spokeswoman with the Richmond Department of Public Utilities. So these users, who only pay the base rate, would save $23.29 a month.

But 750 gallons is precious little water to use in a month. Such a household would be limited daily to a 5-minute shower, one tooth brushing, one hand washing and several toilet flushes and monthly to two loads of laundry and several dish washings, according to estimates from the U.S. Geological Survey. We wondered if some of those households might be properties where no one is living but where someone still pays a water bill, such as a vacant apartment.

Fountain said no one knows.

"If we’re sending them a bill, then we believe the property is occupied, that someone is using water there," she said. "We can’t tell you how many people, how often they’re there. We just don’t have that information."

So the mayor is correct that his plan cuts water and wastewater rates for half the city households. The unsaid part, of course, is that it raises rates for the other half -- those billed monthly for using 500 cubic feet or more.

We should note that the average residential household uses 600 cubic feet in water and wastewater each month, according to Raftelis Financial Consultants, a group that examined the Richmond’s utility pricing in a March 2013 report. Such customers will see their bill rise from $74.72 to $80.29 -- a $5.57 increase.

Our ruling

The mayor said that under his plan, half of the city’s residences would see a drop in water bills.

His carefully worded statement is accurate. The unspoken part is that 50 percent will see their bills increase. The mayor also omits that his proposal would lead to a modest rate hike for the average water user.

The mayor is correct, but his statement benefits from additional information.

We rate the claim Mostly True.

Our Sources

Mayor Dwight Jones,"Mayor’s proposal cuts base water rates provide 2% salary increase for city employees," March 12, 2013.

E-mail from Tammy Hawley, spokeswoman for Mayor Dwight Jones, March 27, 2013.

E-mail from Michael Wallace, spokesman for Mayor Dwight Jones, April 18, 2013.

Raftelis Financial Consultants, Inc., "City of Richmond Department of Public Utilities cost of service and rate design study," March 13, 2013.

Recorded minutes of budget presentation to the city council by Deputy Chief Administrative Officer Christopher Beschler, March 27, 2013.

Interview with Angela Fountain, public information manager at the Richmond Department of Utilities, April 18, 2013.

Interview with Charles Samuels, Richmond City Council President, April 18, 2013.

Interview with Scott Burger, member of Better Government for Richmond, April 16, 2013.

E-mails from Scott Burger, April 16-17, 2013.

Interview with Councilwoman Reva Trammell, April 17, 2013.

Sierra Club of the James, "Sierra Club responds to water rate budget debate," March 21, 2013.

U.S. Geological Survey, "How much is your daily indoor water use?," accessed April 18, 2013.

Richmond Department of Public Utilities,"Water and wastewater rates," accessed April 15, 2013.

Richmond Times-Dispatch, "Richmond Mayor to propose cutting water, wastewater fees in half," March 12, 2013.

Richmond Times-Dispatch, "City budget proposal includes raises, water fee cuts," March 13, 2013.

Richmond Times-Dispatch, "Advocates press city for utilities report, March 1, 2013.

Richmond Times-Dispatch, "Frustrated Richmond police, firefighters want pay programs reinstated," April 9, 2013.

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