The last time the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority proposed a double-digit rate increase--42 percent in 1997--dozens of people packed a hearing room and spoke passionately about the hardship it would inflict.

But the authority's current proposal, which would raise rates more than 18 percent over four years, drew a sparse audience and only 15 speakers, most of them representing nonprofits or businesses.

The hearing at the Martin Luther King Jr. Library auditorium last Thursday concluded in a crisp two hours. The authority is to vote on the increase at its December meeting.

The turnout may have been relatively light because the board is proposing two programs to soften the impact of the rate increases. One would begin a "lifeline" rate to grant discounts to low-income people, much as other utilities do. The other would create a fund to help some nonprofits pay their utility bills.

The rate increase package also includes a proposal to charge the District for water used in fire hydrants, which would raise about $1.9 million a year.

Authority officials say the rate increase is needed to pay for a capital improvement program that will upgrade the city's aging network of water pipes and the Blue Plains sewage plant. They say they already have made progress cleaning up years of neglected maintenance, and boast that city water has exceeded federal safety standards for three years in a row.

But some speakers complained that the authority should clean up its own act before seeking money from rate payers.

They noted the authority's own estimate that it cannot account for 24 percent of the water it purchases from the Army Corps of Engineers treatment plants, the highest such percentage among the region's utilities. They cited the recent corruption convictions of several former authority employees as evidence of continuing problems.

The 11-member authority includes six members appointed by the mayor, but it is not part of D.C. government. The authority's problem is not lack of money, but the "critical failure of WASA management to operate the authority effectively and efficiently," said D.C. resident Mark Eckenwiler.

Edward R. Osann, a spokesman for five local environmental groups, said the multi-year rate increase gives a "false sense of precision" as to what the authority's needs will be. He endorsed the increase proposed to take effect next year, but said the authority should hold off on others until it fixes its problems and knows how much it will really need.

"Let's take it one year at a time," agreed Terry Lynch, executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations. "No other utility goes out there for four years in a row."

Representatives of commercial landlords complained of continuing problems with estimated bills, erratic intervals between bills and other difficulties that hamper their ability to budget. They said the increase would hurt their ability to compete for tenants with suburban buildings.

"I'd like to raise my income by that much," said David W. Taylor, representing Charles E. Smith Commercial Realty. "This is just a little too much, too soon."

The proposal would raise rates by 5.1 percent in April; 5.4 percent a year later; 4.4 percent in April 2002; and 3.9 percent in April 2003. The average residential bill, now $34 a month (although paid quarterly), would rise by a total of $6.87 a month, officials say, over the four years.

The lifeline rate, which would help low-income residents save an average of $76 a year, would be similar to programs offered by other utilities. It was endorsed by Lynch and other representatives of charitable groups, but one D.C. resident, William G. Smith, branded it as "welfare water rates" and said it is unfair to have different rates for different users.

Representatives of nonprofits also endorsed the community fund that would help them pay their bills. The 42 percent water rate increase two years ago "seriously threatens the existence and future of our organization," said John Banner, representing Jubilee Housing.

Eugene D. Kinlow, a Ward 8 resident, said he supports the idea of helping nonprofit groups--"Who could not?"--but does not want the authority to use revenue raised from customers to pay for it. He urged the authority to seek donations instead, which is one option under consideration.

As the hearing ended, the chairman of the D.C. Consumer Utility Board, a community watchdog group, introduced himself to the authority board members at the front of the room and promised they would be hearing from his group.

"You are now an area that we will be monitoring," said Herbert Harris, a former president of the Kingman Park Civic Association.

Harris said in an interview later that he thinks the proposed increase is "excessive" and that the water authority should be regulated by the city more tightly. A bill to include the authority under the regulation of the Public Service Commission did not pass the D.C. Council last year, and has been proposed again this year. Authority officials oppose it.