Cover Story: Water, sewer rates rising

By Jeff Atkinson - bio l email

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV)  - Look at your next water bill.  A rate increase for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities customers is now in effect.

Raising rates in a recession is never popular.. and it comes after years of water rates rising.

But what Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities is now undertaking is an effort at simplifying billing - bringing stability to its budget which they say may prevent future dramatic rate hikes.

He turns on the water - knowing the meter's running.  But for Mike Woodie of Mint Hill it's the only way you're sure to have a green summer in the Carolinas.

His water and sewer bill with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities can go up to 250-bucks a month in the summer.  A majority of the bill goes to irrigation.

It can change significantly. We can drop back into the 120-125 range if we're not watering.. if there's any kind of water restrictions. It'll drop by 50-percent," says Woodie.

For years, C-M-U has leaned on the large water users - charging them a premium - to help balance the books.

But during the droughts when water restrictions were enacted - that money the Utility relied on from the large water users went dry too.

Since you can't count on the weather Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities found something it could count on.

New in your bill this month, an availability fee.  A flat charge of $2.25 cents for water, $4.30 for sewer.  That's on top of what you use in water and sewer.

"There is a cost to just bring water to your home and that's in the form of capital spending at the Utility."

In the 1990s when Charlotte was growing like crazy C-M-U invested heavily in infrastructure, putting in new water lines, building water treatment plants and wastewater plants.  And all that costs.

When people were moving in they added to the Utility's customer base.  Since the recession that's slowed, but the debt continues which is why rates have risen steadily over the years.

The availability fee helps get at the debt.

"So by putting in these fees what it does it provide a stable way for us to generate revenue to pay for some of the capital construction projects that bring you the water," says Karen Whichard of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities.

In the new bill, which starts July 1, the average C-M-U customer will see his bill go up about $4.59 a month.

As part of the new rate structure the Utility is bringing balance between the four-tier rate payers, lowering slightly the rate for water users in Tier 1 and cutting a break in Tier 4 for large customers on their sewer charges since most of their water used for irrigation doesn't go through the sewer system anyway.

It's a slight break for people like Mike Woodie.

"The water's great. Service is fantastic. But it does get expensive when you try to keep everything green," he says.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities says even with the rate hike its water and sewer fees are some of the lowest in the southeast.  Atlanta for example pays twice as high as what customers here pay.

How much is the new revenue raising?  About $25 million out of a budget of $275 million.

In addition to paying off debt some of the money will go to hire almost 40 new employees.  The department is adding more boots on the ground to get water leaks fixed faster.

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