District water and sewer rates which have been steadily increasing during the past three years -- are now among the highest in the area, with boosts totaling 25 percent still to come.
In an effort to reduce large operating deficits recorded by the sewer and water fund in 1981 and 1982, the D.C. City Council approved a measure in 1983 that will triple water and sewer rates by the fall of 1987.
With the lion's share of that increase now in place, the usual grumble about water rates has risen to a crescendo, city officials say, and may prompt changes in the way water charges are billed.
"With the new rates in place, people are feeling the impact on their water bills," said D.C. City Council member Betty Anne Kane. "The water department has also replaced a lot of the defective meters, so that for the first time many residents are getting real readings, and sometimes those can be a shock."
The cost for water and sewer has risen from $1.52 per 1,000 gallons in 1982 to $3.33 today, an increase of $169 in the average annual residential-water bill, which has risen from $142 in 1982 to $311 today.
Rates will rise again this October to $3.83 per 1,000 gallons, and when the final increase -- to $4.22 -- goes into effect in October 1987, the average annual water bill for residential property in the city will be $394.
With all that money pouring into city coffers, the water and sewer fund turned a profit for the first year in 1985, but still has an outstanding deficit of $31.3 million. The deficit is not expected to be wiped out until 1988, city budget officials said.
Rates are not expected to increase again in the District until 1992, when a new treatment facility at the Blue Plains Sewage Treatment Plant will come into operation and raise sewer rates.
While Washington's rates have risen sharply, they do not exceed water and sewer rates for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, which provides water and sewer to suburban Maryland residents. WSSC rates rose 2.5 percent on July 1 to $3.74 per 1,000 gallons, an $8.30 increase in the average annual bill for a four-person family.
A WSSC spokesman said that during the past five years WSSC rates have increased an average of 7 percent a year and probably will increase again next year.
The lowest rates in the area are in Arlington County, where residents pay only $2.35 per 1,000 gallons and haven't had an increase in two years. County officials said they have not decided yet if rates will be increased next year.
Alexandria residents, who pay for water and sewer separately, are billed on the average at a rate of $2.96 per 1,000 gallons for both services.
The Alexandria Sanitation Authority, which charged 84 cents per 1,000 gallons for sewer between 1979 and 1985, last year raised rates to $1.02. Rates will continue to go up during the next four years, rising to $1.22 this fall, $1.43 in 1987, $1.63 in 1988 and $1.84 in 1989.
Alexandrians are paying on the average $1.94 per 1,000 gallons for water, and officials at the Virginia American Water Co. -- the investor-owned company that provides water to the city -- said they do not expect an increase in that rate next year.
Fairfax County residents currently pay $3.04 per 1,000 gallons for water and sewer.
Fred Griffith, director of the Fairfax Water Authority, said the county does not expect to increase rates in the immediate future. The county cut water rates slightly in 1982 and 1983.
The big increases in District water bills during the past three years -- and the chorus of complaints from city residents -- have increased pressure for changes to the water and sewer administration's billing system.
Bills for water and sewer are issued twice a year. When rates were low, most property owners didn't complain about such a system. Now that rates are up, however, many consumers say they would like to see smaller bills more frequently, Kane said.
Wallace White, acting administrator for the D.C. Water and Sewer Utility Administration, said that his office is planning to switch to a quarterly billing system sometime this fall.
Kane, who has criticized the city for not putting such a system into place before the increase in rates, said that she is considering proposing legislation that would require quarterly billing when the council reconvenes after its summer recess this fall.
Kane said she also is considering submitting a bill that would change the way the city handles challenges of water bills.
"The way it works today, if you challenge a water bill, you still have to pay the bill," Kane said. "Then, if the challenge is resolved in your favor, you get your money back."
Kane said she believes consumers should not be required to pay the bill until the challenge is resolved.
"I wouldn't trust the city to give me back my money, and I don't expect residents do," Kane said. "The city could make these changes administratively, but if they won't, we may have to legislate them."
White said that his office is "reassessing" the billing and challenge system and will make an announcement when it is prepared to make changes.