Eldon Spencer, until recently the Bloomington City Council District 2 representative, expressed his concern about Bloomington's new water utility rates in a column posted in the January 7 Sun Current. We are re-posting his column below.
The Bloomington Sun Current’s Nov. 30 headline noting “New rates offer added incentive for water conservation” should have been expanded with the words “for some Bloomington families.”
The Bloomington City Council’s unanimous adoption of a new rate structure with increased penalties for higher usage, without adjustment for household size, effectively punishes larger and younger families. Many of these families will be penalized despite having a real need to exceed the newly lowered 6,000 gallon per month level, above which the cost per gallon rises by more than 75 percent.
At the same time, the two-tier system provides scant conservation incentive to most single person or “empty nester” households, thus making the desired incentive structure both under-inclusive and over-inclusive.
When this issue of increasing rates due to decreased usage first came up in a study session while I was on the council, I indicated that I would not vote for the new structure unless household impact data was available that better broke down water usage by household size. Although I was not elected to fill the remainder of the vacant District 2 term, I would have voted for a flat rate if we could not have rates that established a burden/incentive package that more fairly shared the cost burden while embodying incentives realistic for dwellings occupied by families.
The fact that the penalty rates start at levels exceeding the 6,000 gallon per month “average residential unit” usage in Bloomington is of little comfort if your basic household needs reflect a larger than average household size. And while perfect data may not be available, I was able to find a roughly 50 gallon per person daily household usage standard from data readily available on the Metropolitan Council website.
This study leads to a number of implications, both policy-oriented and practical. On the policy side, instead of getting in front of an issue from a communications standpoint, council members should have insisted upon getting facts, including usage broken down by household size, on which to base their rate structure decision. If the Met Council standard of 50 gallons per day, per person is correct, our council will have just subjected well over half of Bloomington’s four-person or larger households to penalties unless they thirst more or bathe less, while creating penalties for, or incentives to a much lower proportion of smaller-sized households.
On the practical side, it is simply unfair to nearly double the per gallon price of water beyond a certain threshold for families that cannot realistically avoid exceeding that usage level. A better system would be one that gives more households a realistic conservation signal by establishing a threshold that, through a family size adjustment, would provide a more realistic conservation usage level signal.
The council’s one-size-fits-all standard is both unfair to larger and generally younger households, and short on real conservation standards for two-person or smaller households like ours that no longer have kids living in the home.