2021 | Government

Water utility proposes up to 9% rate hike

Average quarterly bill would go up about $21.66

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The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission has proposed up to a 9% water increase for next year — the highest rate hike in nearly a decade.

Some county officials, however, said the proposed maximum increase is too high and planned on voting for a lower increase.

Both Montgomery and Prince George’s counties are served by WSSC. The law says that if they disagree on an increase, whatever WSSC has proposed will take effect.

The Prince George’s County Council had a briefing on the proposed rate increase on Thursday. Joe Beach, deputy general manager of administration for WSSC, said during that briefing that the proposed increase was high, but necessary, to recoup lost revenue during the coronavirus pandemic and to ensure long-term savings for customers.

“It will be difficult, we realize, in [fiscal year 2023], but we feel it is necessary,” Beach said. 

Prince George’s Council Vice Chair Deni Taveras said she was concerned about the impact such a rate increase would have on those most affected by the coronavirus pandemic, including low-income seniors.

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich said in an interview that the proposed increase is too high, and that he and his staff would recommend a lower increase. Elrich added he would like to agree with what Prince George’s County decides — the counties have mostly agreed in recent years. 

“We try to align ourselves with PG County, which has an equal vote on this, and if the two of us disagree, then the recommendation is the WSSC would prevail,” Elrich said. “And so I didn’t want to disagree.”

Angela Rouson, a spokeswoman for the Prince George’s County Council, said the proposed rate increase is part of the annual bicounty budget process with Montgomery County, which will be finalized next year. Although the council was briefed Thursday, it took no formal vote on the proposal, Rouson said. 

The Montgomery County Council’s Transportation and Environment Committee was scheduled to hold a briefing on the proposed rate increase on Thursday, but postponed it because it had not received recommendations from Elrich’s office in time to prepare for the meeting.

In an interview, County Council President Tom Hucker, the chair of that committee, called WSSC’s proposal “completely tone deaf.”

“I think in the middle of an historic recession, at a time when we’ve taken pains to lower rent increases, and at a time where our lowest [income] residents have been greatly suffering in their health and financial well-being, a rate increase like that is completely unjustified,” Hucker said.

He said he hasn’t seen enough justification for why WSSC should increase its rates more than around 4% to 5%, as seen in many jurisdictions nationwide. 

The current average quarterly water bill for Montgomery County and Prince George’s counties is $241.04. A 9% increase would raise that to $262.70 — a $21.66 increase. 

Historically, the maximum water rate increases the two counties have approved has been:

  • 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 agreeing to the higher maximum increase of 5%. WSSC set the rate at 4.5%
  • Fiscal year 2018: 3.5%

Beach said in an interview Friday that the proposed rate for fiscal year 2023 was set for multiple reasons.

First, WSSC lost about $130 million in revenue during the pandemic due to the impact on its customers.

Second, 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, Beach said. As jurisdictions like Montgomery County have received state and federal aid due to the coronavirus pandemic, WSSC has received no aid, he said.

“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 said. 

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