2021 | Government

UPDATED: Council committee recommends cutting WSSC water-rate increase from 9% to 6%

Elrich supports 7%; council members have not ruled that out

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This story was updated at 2:05 p.m. Oct. 22, 2021, to reflect that Marc Elrich and Prince George’s County officials have reached consensus on recommending a 7% increase in the water rate. It was updated again at 2:05 p.m. Oct. 26, 2021, to include comments from Joe Beach of WSSC.

A County Council committee has recommended increasing water rates in Montgomery County for the coming year — but not as high as a utility is seeking.

The council’s Transportation and Environment committee said Thursday that it supports a 6% increase. The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission is seeking a 9% increase.

The committee said it could potentially look at raising its recommendation to 7%. County Executive Marc Elrich wrote in a memo to council members earlier this week that he and Prince George’s County officials have “reached consensus” on recommending a 7% rate increase to their respective County Councils.  

Committee members asked, however, that WSSC officials provide more information on why 7% is needed. They asked the utility to explain the decrease in revenue it has had because of delinquent accounts since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, and the lack of state and federal aid it has received compared to local governments in the region. 

Council President Tom Hucker, the chair of the committee, said he understands that WSSC has had higher costs, such as in infrastructure, and that it has lost revenue due to an increased number of delinquent accounts.

Hucker added, however, that many county residents are still struggling financially due to the coronavirus pandemic and have had to resort to food assistance. County officials have offered free bus service and capped rent increases to help those residents, he said. 

Keith Levchenko, a staffer to the committee, said the County Council does not need to hold its final vote on the proposed water rates until May, as part of the county’s overall budget process.

By law, the Montgomery County Council and the Prince George’s Council must agree on a rate increase. Otherwise, the WSSC request could take effect.

The average quarterly water bill for Montgomery and Prince George’s counties is currently $241.04. WSSC’s proposal for a 9% percent rate hike, would raise that to $262.70 — a $21.66 increase.

The proposed rate is the maximum increase that ratepayers could pay. In actuality, the rate increase could be lower.

Recent approved rate increases are: 

  • Fiscal year 2022: 5.9%
  • Fiscal year 2021: 7%. WSSC eventually set a 6% increase.
  • Fiscal year 2020: 5%
  • Fiscal year 2019: The two counties did not agree, with Montgomery County supporting the higher maximum increase of 5%, while Prince George’s County supporting a 4% increase. WSSC set the rate at 4.5%
  • Fiscal year 2018: 3.5%

Joe Beach, the deputy general manager of administration for WSSC, told committee members that the utility expects to have details of how a 6% percent increase would affect the utility’s budget by mid-January.

Beach previously said that the rate increase was needed for multiple reasons.

One was a loss of about $130 million in revenue because of the impact of the pandemic on customers.

Another reason is that the pandemic has caused the bond rating agencies in New York City to warn that WSSC is at risk of losing its AAA bond rating, which saves the utility company millions of dollars each fiscal year.

“We haven’t received any funding to assist our customers, [and] we have costs like any other business. … We have our employees to pay and our suppliers to pay, and our costs are going up,” Beach previously said.

 Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com