The Washington Post

D.C. considers surcharge on water to help Bloomingdale

The D.C. Council is considering creating a $1 million fund to reimburse residents in Bloomingdale who have been tortured by repeated flooding and sewer backups, which could result in a surcharge on all city residents’ water bills.

D.C. Department of Transportation worker, Daniel Ellis, scrapes the sewer overflow from T Street NW near the intersection of Rhode Island Ave. NW, on Sept. 3, 2012 (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Council member Mary M. Cheh, chairwoman of the Committee on the Environment, Public Works and Transportation, said the average ratepayer would see his or her bill increase by only 30 cents a month. Cheh (D-Ward 3) said the money would reimburse residents “who have had sewage backfill into their homes not covered by insurance.”

But several of Cheh’s colleagues questioned the proposal, expressing reservations about charging all city residents for a localized problem. Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) said the council was in essence considering another tax on city residents.

“We are asking residents all across the city to pay for very specific damages,” Bowser said.

Council member Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7) worried the proposal would result in other communities also requesting reimbursement for damages in their neighborhoods.

“It is going to open up a Pandora’s box of people saying, ‘I have a problem, are we going to fund it?’” said Alexander.

Cheh pushed back against her colleagues’ concerns, arguing the flooding issues in Bloomingdale are a citywide concern because it’s not the only neighborhood with aging or stressed water pipes.

“These inadequate sewer lines are throughout the District,” Cheh said. “Everybody gets water and sewer from D.C. Water. In some areas, there are lucky beneficiaries of newer pipes…but if you happen to live in an area where the system isn’t adequate, some areas are getting poor service.”

Cheh continued, “When the system is broken, and as a result causing specific damage…we all ought to pay for that system and its failings.”

Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), however, then raised a new concern with the proposal. Graham, former chairman of the Public Works Committee, noted that D.C. Water is a quasi-independent agency so the District government probably does not have standing to mandate it provide a specific remedy for Bloomingdale flooding issues.

Instead, Graham and other members suggested, the council should consider establishing the fund directly. It’s unclear how the city would pay for such a fund.

But with the city ending fiscal year 2012 with a $140 million surplus, council members could face a difficult task in convincing the public that additional taxes or fees are needed. Cheh said she plans to meet with council staffers and D.C. Water officials on Friday to finalize the bill, which could come up for a vote before the full council next week.

Tim Craig is The Post’s bureau chief in Pakistan. He has also covered conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and within the District of Columbia government.


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