2021 | Opinion

Opinion: Without essential context, comparison of WSSC to local utilities is misleading

Budget cuts, service areas, drop in usage are all part of the story

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An Oct. 23 opinion piece by Gordie Brenne (“Another rate increase won’t fix WSSC’s structural problems”) questioning WSSC Water’s need for a 9 percent rate increase selectively pulled information from a survey that compares WSSC Water to regional utilities, including Bowie, Rockville, DC Water, Fairfax County Wastewater and Fairfax Water.

Each utility is unique and the questionable survey was flawed from the start because it compares WSSC Water to much smaller utilities, not utilities of the same size and operational scope. Let me put this survey into context and outline why we require this level of rate increase.

With more than 11,000 miles of water and sewer mains covering a 1,000-square-mile area serving 1.8 million customers in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, WSSC Water is one of the largest water and wastewater utilities in the nation and much larger than the other utilities surveyed.

For example, WSSC Water is twice the size of Fairfax Water, our system is much older and we serve far more customers. Plus, Fairfax Water only provides water, not sewer service.

On the sewer side, Fairfax County Wastewater is also smaller and it does not provide drinking water. Additionally, our service area is also far larger than DC Water’s and, unlike WSSC Water, it does not treat their own drinking water. (See pages 1 to 5 of a Regional Utilities Benchmarking Survey.)

Brenne starts off his piece stating that WSSC Water has departed from cost-cutting measures. Nothing could be further from the truth.

To offset approximately $130 million in revenue losses due to COVID-19, we have cut more than $130 million from the past two budgets (see p. 25) and recently cut an additional $20 million from our current budget (see p. 136).

Also, we have not provided employees with raises or cost-of-living adjustments the past two years.

Brenne was correct in stating that both the Montgomery and Prince George’s county councils have approved rate increases for WSSC Water since 2005. What he might not realize is that WSSC Water is experiencing a long-term trend of declining water consumption — requiring increases in rates to keep pace with rising costs and service demands.

Despite a growing population in the counties we serve, water use by our customers has fallen by nearly 6 percent over 20 years due to water conservation efforts and low-flow toilets and fixtures. While this is great for the environment, this has had a negative impact on our finances.

Regarding rates, it’s worth noting that our average bill increase from 2000 through 2022 is lower than the U.S. average and far lower than many other regional water utilities (see p. 30), including DC Water, Fairfax, Baltimore, Bowie and Rockville.

Additionally, the process for determining our rates was established in 1994 by both county councils and involves a thorough review of our finances. This comprehensive analysis includes revenue and expense projections, debt service, new debt, and total water and sewer operating expenses.

If you want to compare us to local utilities, a good metric to use is how our quarterly bills stack up to those of other regional water utilities.

For the typical three-person household using 165 gallons per day, WSSC Water ($241) is lower than Baltimore ($406) and DC Water ($398) and comparable to Fairfax ($219). WSSC Water also has the lowest fixed fees of all four utilities (see p. 21).

Another good comparison is looking at the number of employees we have (1,695) compared to the miles of water and sewer pipe we maintain (11,454 miles). DC Water has 1,109 employees but only 3,100 miles of pipe (see pages 1 to 5). This means we have approximately 148 employees per 1,000 miles of pipe, while DC Water has about 358 employees per 1,000 miles of pipe.

What we can agree with Brenne on is the fact that we face serious financial challenges due to COVID-19, which is exactly why we are seeking a 9 percent rate increase.

One in five WSSC Water customers is past due on their bills because of this global health and financial crisis. That equates to more than 90,000 past due accounts totaling nearly $70 million in potential revenue (see p. 24). And despite repeated requests for direct assistance, we have yet to receive any county, state or federal funds to help our customers in need pay their outstanding balances.

Since 1918, WSSC Water has proudly provided high-quality drinking water to the residents and businesses in both counties and safely returned clean water back to the environment. More than 100 years later, we remain dedicated to protecting public health and safety, and providing our valued customers with safe, clean and reliable water.

That we’ve fulfilled this clean-water mission for over a century without a single drinking water quality violation is a testament to the dedication of our employees and our fiduciary responsibility.

Carla A. Reid is the general manager/CEO of WSSC Water.

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