Sewer Bills Stink

“06880” reader John McCarthy posted a simple status update on Facebook:

Hearing some very disturbing things about huge increases in sewer fees in Westport, CT.  Smelly business.

His friends quickly joined the fray.

“Probably based on water usage instead of a flat fee,” said Board of Finance member Charles W.K. Haberstroh.  “Large increases will hurt certain businesses, like YMCA, restaurants, gyms, large families.  Don’t know if there is a phase-in process.  Haven’t heard, do you know?”

It does not seem usage-based, McCarthy replied.  He cited someone married — with no kids — who faced a 28% increase.

McCarthy’s own family of 4 — “with no abnormal water usage” — saw its bill rise from $382 to $633.96, a 66% increase.  “All that was supposed to happen,” he said, “was a re-allocation based on usage.”

Matthew Mandell — like McCarthy, an RTM member — posted that at the previous night’s meeting, “we heard the dope on this.  Fees would have gone to $450 across the board.  Debt service is part of the increase.

“Fee from now on will be based on water usage instead of one flat fee for all.  Aquarion is providing the water numbers.  So the more you shower, do clothes, do dishes and flush the more you pay to sewer it.  Bigger houses and families more, empty nesters and small houses less.”

Jimmy Izzo’s bill went from $285 to $685.  He wondered if the sewer bill is “a hidden way of paying pensions and other shortfalls.”

McCarthy responded with this info:  “Usage charges are budgeted to increase 12% this year ($3.13 to $3.41 million).”

He cited 4 examples he’s heard, of increases ranging from 30% to 140%.  “How do these increases average out to 12%” across the board, he asked.

“Individual usage varies a lot,” noted Haberstroh.  Pools and/or lawn sprinkler systems will cause a “geometric” sewer bill increase.

McCarthy countered quickly:  “Charlie, the rates were set based on the last Dec-May bills in order to exclude the impact of pools and lawn watering.”

The debate — and questions — continue.  “06880” readers are invited to weigh in.  Hold your noses — but don’t hold back.

32 responses to “Sewer Bills Stink

  1. Thanks Dan.
    For those of you doing the math at home, I had a typo on FB that Dan quoted. The current years sewer usage fees are budgeted at $3.510 million, not $3.410 as quoted. This is the 12% increase from last years $3.135 million.

    I got an email yesterday from Gavin Anderson letting me know that he had been hearing concerns about this issue and that he has asked the 1st Selectman to place this topic on the agenda for the Board of Selectman’s meeting on September 15th.

  2. The new sewer bills result in a dramatic shift in payments from commercial (other than large users like the Y and Rowing Club) and the Town/Education to the homeowner. The philosophy (water in-water out) is correct but there was little information from Town Hall to prepare the homeowners for the size of the increase. There are a number of bills in the in the $1000-$3000 range and I have heard of one bill that was for $5000. That is why the Town was swamped with telephone calls questioning the size of the bills. The Town must also institute a formal procedure to provide adjustments based on water leaks. I know of at least one person in Town Hall that has alreay obtained a reduction by claiming water leaks. That option must be available to everyone.

  3. Thanks for writing this, Dan.
    Several households in the Compo Beach area also got bills that were about double what they were last year. We are a family of three, in an efficiently sized house. This cannot be right and absolutely must be investigated.

    Furthermore, many of us received the bills on August 31st and the due date for payment was September 1st. This bill will sit on my desk unpaid until a proper explanation is provided.

  4. Our neighboring communities in Fairfield and Bridgeport have had metered sewer bills for many years – all fairly trouble free. The bill IS a function of water in/water out, so all of the new bills should be reflective of each individual’s Aquarion invoice, and no more. If your annual sewer bill is higher than your annual Aquarion bill, there would appear to be an error. Currently on septic, so I haven’t seen a new bill, but if there are additional charges for line maintenance etc., one would hope these are clearly identified and distinct from “usage” fees.
    I question the comment re: errors caused by leaks as these would likely have resulted in a very high Aquarion bill, prompting the homeowner to look into an unusual change in their quarterly invoice from the water company.

  5. If sewer bills are truly based on usage then your WATER bill should be the key indicator for the math. Compare your water bill and your sewer bill with others to see if there is disparity. This would then become an easy challenge.

  6. A Westport Reader

    Hi Dan. I’ve never posted here before, nor have met you, but I’ve been a reader and fan of yours for many years. First, I want to thank you for bringing up the sewer issue tax, because it has been remarkably silent out there about it.

    Here are my numbers:

    According to Aquarion, my household’s water usage is not unusual. They can’t provide specific December – May water usage numbers so suspect that the Town based its estimate on the two billing periods of Feb. 22, 2010 (spanning 11/14/09-2/22/10) and 5/22/10 (spanning 2/23/10-5/24/10).

    For the February statement, my household used 40 cffs of water and paid $172.05. For the May statement, my household used 36 cffs of water and paid $154.88. So if we double everything for a full-year estimate, we would pay $653.86 for 152 cffs for a year.

    They have accounted my household at 150 cffs per year. That is accurate.

    They have then multiplied that by $5.87 per cubic to get a total tax bill of $880.50. Last year the sewer tax bill was $382.

    The Westport sewer tax for a portion of that water going out into the sewer is more than the cost of the water coming in and more than a 100% increase over last year’s tax.

    I agree that it is fair to assess sewer tax based on usage. However it would be more fair to prorate it at ¾ of water coming in because a certain amount doesn’t go out into the sewer (drunk, evaporated during cooking, soaked up by laundry that gets dried out in the dryer not go into the sewer, poured into plants, etc.).

    But the real issue is the $5.87 per cubic rate. It is absurdly high and 100%+ tax increases are beyond what is reasonable and customary.

    What I would like is for the town to reexamine the $5.87 rate and reduce it to a more reasonable rate.

  7. I knew the new sewer charges were coming, but the actual amount itself was quite a shocker. I agree we should all pay our fair share, but someone is going to have to show me the math they used to arrive at the new fees. I own a small home (1300 sq ft, 2 baths newly updated with low-flow fixtures) that I rent out. A lovely family consisting of a Mom, a teenager and toddler live there. My bill went from $389 to $1,033!!! Needless to say I will be making a visit to Town Hall this week armed with my tenant’s actual usage bills from Aquarion.

    Since the new fee is usage based, has anyone heard of any bills decreasing?

  8. Taxed.Parents.of.Teenagers

    This is an unfair usage tax on parents with teenagers and their hour-long showers.

  9. There is no justification for any increase in sewer taxes. Inflation is running 2%. Once again, we have evidence that that the people who run Westport (the employees, and their elected toadies) see the average resident as no more than an ATM machine. BTW this transfer of liability from commericial property owners to residential property owners was tried once before in the matter of real estate taxes. In that case the motivation was suspect, and it remains so.

  10. Innocent Bystander

    As long as we continue to act like ATM machines, why shouldn’t we expect to be treated as such????? Penny wise and pound foolish in my mind in regard to a lot of these cost issues.

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  12. Just curious, and this is probably worthy of a separate discussion – do you check with the people you quote from Facebook before posting their comments here? I happen to be friends with John on FB and saw the thread there, but I wouldn’t have considered those comments fair game for the general public without permission. I would be less inclined to post to a friend’s FB wall if I thought a friend of a friend would turn something semi-private into a public comment. I’m trying to reserve my snarkiness for friends – it tends to incite rage in the general population of Westport!

  13. A Facebook wall is considered a public place. John inspired a very reasoned and rational discussion — not snarky at all.

    • The Dude Abides

      I am not sure I agree with that supposition. Facebook is not “public” per se. It is by invitation only to one’s site. There has been recent litigation in New York on issues of liability of what’s said on such sites as well as blogs. I am not saying I agree with Mr. Bowles condemnation of using Facebook as a resource, especially if you are an invitee, but I would caution you on its reliability and related aforementioned exposure.

  14. Another Westport Reader

    I have to agree with “A Westport Reader” above. The rate of $5.87 is too high. I did a little internet research and found that Darien has a meeting coming up to propose an increase from$4.00 to $4.40 per ccf – which is substantially lower than what Westport is charging.

    It appears that Norwalk is charging a flat fee of $250 for single family dwellings.

    I could not find info for what Fairfield is charging their residents.

    But it does seem that Westport is burdening it’s residents unfairly compared to the surrounding towns.

  15. I didn’t say that there were snarky comments in that thread. I meant that if I posted something on a friend’s wall I wouldn’t necessarily want it reposted here. I just wanted your clarification – thanks. As far as Facebook walls being public, I think there should be a realistic expectation that what is said among friends won’t be published for public consumption – friends don’t do that. You may have the legal right to do so, and your response indicates that you see no limits to it, but I’ll go on the record as saying I think it is poor policy that ultimately defeats the purpose of choosing who your friends are on Facebook.

  16. Dude – I don’t condemn FB as a source, I just think that if comments from FB are attributed to an individual, one should ask their permission as a courtesy even if it isn’t required by law. JM has his page set to public. Mine is set so that only friends can see and comment (not friends of friends) but that isn’t obvious if you are a friend just commenting on a wall. From Dan’s response, he would make no distinction about publishing comments from either and that is troubling. I think it is entirely plausible that someone would feel free to comment on a personal issue like their tax bill among friends but not want specifics made public, but perhaps I am wrong about that.

    For years, I ran the Governance, Risk Management & Compliance Roundtable, an international forum that spent a lot of time studying privacy and security regulations, so maybe I am just more sensitive to this than most. Dan does a great job here chronicling life in Westport, and nothing I’ve said should be taken as critical of this site or his efforts. I just wanted to get clarification, and perhaps thoughts from Dan and others about when it is “right” (not legal) to cite FB or other overheard comments.

    • The Dude Abides

      Mr. Bowles: I agree with you and perhaps condemnation was the wrong word. I had similar issues with the use of Jimmy Izzo’s Facebook comments on cycling being used as a source. As a former attorney and writer, I also question the ethical use of Facebook as a source for reasons of privacy and as mentioned above, reliability. I would much rather see Mr. Woog’s capable take on the subject matter rather than quotation of a faceless Facebook post.

      • Good points by Adrian Bowles and others. In the future I will cite original Facebook postings (both John McCarthy and Jimmy Izzo, on the bike issue, had given permission), and refrain from quoting other posters by name. Erring on the side of privacy sounds like good advice. THANKS.

  17. Hey Dan: thanks for sharing your unique perspective on our town AND giving us a forum to vent – I mean – express our views (!)…this USED to be why we’d go to WestportNow (’til we had to give up our First Amendment rights or be “banned” 😉
    As a family of 3 (presumably smaller than the “average” of 4.2) we also expected the new assessments would represent a “fairer” distribution…
    but when our sewer bill almost doubled, it makes us wonder: is this a RE-DISTRIBUTION, or as someone mentioned earlier, a way to make up for a budget shortfall ??? As townsfolk, we deserve full disclosure…I want an audit.
    PS. Does anyone recall the episode with sewer bills that were never mailed several years back, late notices with fees were issued and the denial that went on when we phoned town hall to inquire ? Later, it was discovered that indeed the bill mailing service had messed up and failed to mail the initial bills…but the attitude initially when we questioned the late notices was “just shut up and pay.” I’m with Susan Farewell: I’m not paying ’til we get a reasonable explanation.
    PPS. I’m sure this will all pale compared to the next Reval…stay tuned for that dog & pony show of incompetence and unfairness.

    • Cranky Old Man

      There was a letter of explanation included in the sewer bill. The town has used a new calculation to determine usage and rely on Aquarion for their statistics. I am not sure what all the stink is about because the bills are based on actual usage as opposed to past when they were not. And, of course, they are more in cost. Perhaps it will be a wakeup call to those who use the most scared commodity in the world: water. Although I doubt it. Dependence on oil, and its related downfalls, certainly hasn’t curtailed our driving huge SUV’s. So spoiled and we don’t even know it. Sad

      • Nonsense. There was no justification for ANY increase in costs. The whole episode smacks of a politically motivated effort to shift the burden from commercial users to individual households. Your rant on oil dependence is far off base, We are dependent because we have chosen not to develop our own oil, and gas resources, or substitute nuclear energy as did the French. There is plenty of oil and gas.

        • Cranky Old Man

          Don’t agree on the conspiracy therory of the local morons.
          Someone probably screwed up in the orignal calculations
          and correcting it now.
          I do agree on your energy policy. Maybe if there was less
          demand, we might look to alternative sources e.g. like when
          the price per gallon hit $4.00+ two summers ago and millions
          started to take mass transit. Amazingly, the gallon dropped to $2.50.

          • The answer isn’t less demand, it’s more oil.

          • Cranky Old Man

            I thought you said we had plenty of oil. Perhaps you mean
            domestic oil? That agreed as well. I do believe this “green”
            movement is just a passing fancy. Our addiction is too strong.
            Kudos on nuclear. Why don’t they ever go the Navy and ask them what they do to keep things safe??? Those carriers have never had an accident to my knowledge.

      • We do have planty of oil. It is in the ground. The oil is not of much use if we won’t allow it to be brought to market.

  18. I can think of one “winner” – we sold our house this summer to a family of 6. Their sewer charge will be based in this first round on our family of 2’s usage – one dishwasher load per week, etc., with typical water bills around $70. Tried to look up on town’s website what the charge will be at our old address, but couldn’t find it – any idea if they are on line for review?

  19. I own a property in Westport connect to the sewer. For the last 5 years the water has been shut off at the curb. There is ZERO water usage. Still the bill if for the lowest amount because the house is connected. That is $250.00 when there is zero use. The connection fee was paid when the sewer was hooked up to begin with so why if there is zero water use and no bills from Aquarion for 5 years is there still a sewer use tax on this property. Also I live in Fairfield, a household of 2 that use water and my water usage bill for the year is $140.00. We actually use water and the sewer use tax based on our usage is far less than Westports basic charge of $250. Something is way out of wack and this sould be investigated. I don’t mind paying for sewer use based on water consumption. Fairfield’s system is far but Westport’s is over the top.