Commission Votes to Raise Water Rates

On his last night as WSSC general manager, Andrew D. Brunhart said the commission was irresponsible.
On his last night as WSSC general manager, Andrew D. Brunhart said the commission was irresponsible. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
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By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 29, 2008

The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission agreed last night to raise water rates for the utility's 1.8 million customers by 8 percent in July, breaking a stalemate between commissioners representing Prince George's and Montgomery counties.

The six commissioners agreed to the increased rate, which will translate to an increase of about $11 in the average customer's quarterly bill, but decided against adopting an additional fee that the utility's managers had recommended to fund replacement of aging pipes.

As his last act in office, WSSC General Manager Andrew D. Brunhart warned commissioners that failing to adopt the fee puts the reliability of the system in jeopardy.

He said approving such a budget "communicated to WSSC and to our ratepayers that decaying infrastructure is acceptable to the governing body."

Last year, the utility experienced a record number of pipe breaks. WSSC managers say the situation will only worsen unless there is an infusion of money.

All six commissioners gave preliminary approval in December to a proposal by WSSC administrators to raise rates by 9.5 percent and apply a $20 per month fee to pay to replace decades-old pipes more quickly.

But after public outcry against that suggested increase and the fee, Prince George's commissioners said the proposal was unfair to low-income customers.

Last night's vote represented a compromise between the Prince George's members and the commissioners from Montgomery, who had pushed for the higher rate and some kind of monthly fee.

Still, two Prince George's commissioners voted against the 8 percent increase. Prince George's Commissioner Prem P. Agarwal joined the Montgomery commissioners in supporting the budget.

Brunhart spent his final hours as the utility's chief at last night's meeting. His contract expired at midnight, and commissioners voted along county lines in August not to extend his service with the utility.

Brunhart, a retired Navy engineer, told commissioners that, absent the infrastructure fee, he would recommend dropping the words "entrusted," "reliable" and "clean" from the WSSC mission statement.

"In my view, the public will no longer be able to trust the system that delivers water to residents," he said.

Commissioners said they would return to the topic in next year's budget discussions.

The Prince George's commissioners said they think the system needs to invest in replacement of pipes. However, they said discussion is needed to decide the best way to do so.

"We believe the infrastructure fee would disproportionately affect poor people, more than it would affect more affluent people. It is not equitable for all ratepayers," Agarwal said.

The commissioners from Prince George's also said they doubted the utility's capacity to build the needed miles of pipeline if the fee was approved.

By state law, WSSC is required to submit its budget for approval to the Prince George's and Montgomery county councils by Saturday. The councils will meet jointly in May to consider the water rate. If they cannot agree, the budget approved by WSSC goes into effect automatically.

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