Water Bills Will Increase 8% Starting July 1

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 9, 2008

Residents of Prince George's and Montgomery counties will see their rates for water use jump by 8 percent starting July 1, raising the average customer's quarterly bill by $11.25.

Meeting jointly, the councils of the two counties agreed to the increase yesterday as they approved a $913.7 million budget for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, which provides water and sewer service to 1.8 million customers in the counties.

The budget will fund the utility's operations as well as the replacement of 27 miles of water lines and 51 miles of sewer pipes.

By state law, the utility's budget must be submitted for consideration to the Montgomery and Prince George's councils. The utility has six commissioners, who make up the governing body of the utility. The executives of the two counties each appoint three.

The commissioners agreed in February to an 8 percent increase after the members who represent the counties clashed over a proposal by the utility to raise rates by 9.5 percent. Utility managers also wanted to impose a monthly $20 fee devoted to replacing the system's 10,800 miles of underground water and sewer pipes. The managers said there is a desperate need to take action to prevent breaks.

With the 9.5 percent increase and the fee, water bills would have risen 50 percent starting in July. Commissioners rejected the fee in February.

Prince George's County Council Chairman Samuel H. Dean (D-Mitchellville) called the budget a "real compromise" between the two jurisdictions, saying that council members had opposed the $20 fee because they thought it would have disproportionately affected low-income customers.

"We thought this was the most judicious way to move forward and maintain infrastructure," Dean said.

Montgomery County Council President Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty) said his council had been willing to circulate proposals for higher rate increases but ultimately agreed that residents could afford no more this year, particularly given possible tax increases.

But he said the need to replace pipes must be addressed. There were 2,129 breaks last year, a record. And early Wednesday, a 16-inch water main burst in Chevy Chase, sweeping away a tree and a phone booth and flooding a park. Part of the shoulder along Jones Mill Road collapsed, tying up traffic throughout the day. Utility officials said the pipe that broke had been installed in the 1930s.

"It used to be that you'd have one break, and then you wouldn't hear about one again for a while," Knapp said. "Now the occurrences have been regular enough that it isn't leaving people's minds."

The system has been worn down by groundwater and acid in the soil, but utility managers have said they can replace only about 25 miles of pipes each year. The pipes, designed to last no more than 100 years, are being replaced every 200 years.

The utility froze rates from fiscal 1999 through 2004, a time of restructuring during which officials said that maintenance was put on hold.

Utility officials expressed reservations about the budget submitted to the county councils. Andrew D. Brunhart, former general manager of the utility, pushed for the flat fee to fund new pipes.

Brunhart, whose contract was not renewed by commissioners, said just before leaving the agency in February that, absent the fee, the public would "no longer be able to trust the system that delivers water to residents."

Brunhart, a retired Navy engineer, was hired in 2005 after his predecessor had been ousted by commissioners amid a year of turmoil at the utility. Commissioners are conducting a closed-door search for a general manager while Teresa D. Daniell serves as interim chief.

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