Homer Alaska - Opinion

Story last updated at 4:06 PM on Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Water-sewer customers should pay 'fair share'

Formula should be simple: Use a gallon, pay for a gallon; those who use more should pay more

I keep saying that I'll pay my fair share, but there's a limit to my patience and gullibility. Reviewing recent bills tells me that my triplex's water and sewer costs, before taxes, have been 150 percent higher ($175 vs. $72) than what I think is my fair share.

By "fair share" I mean proportional cost for water: You pay for what you use. Notwithstanding the city council's recent honest but futile effort to balance the water and sewer budget, the rate structure is essentially a shell game where costs over the years have apparently been shifted back and forth within the various user groups.

So who's the bad guy in this scenario?

Certainly for single-family residences it's the $45 monthly sewer and water charge. This cost is a game-changer, depending on which side of the teeter-totter you're on. Its such a high percentage of the cost of low volume water-users that it easily skews, sometimes radically, their fair share.

This fixed cost is one of the ghosts in the machine, the unseen chains clanking in the misty background that raise your hackles in the dark of night, as it has raised mine.

So, imagine this teeter-totter being ridden by the meter-users. Riding the center balance point, not subject to any motion, is the "average" user, using about 3,200 gallons per month. For this user, water and sewer consumption is balanced out by his actual rate costs. But the average user is a bookkeeping fiction because virtually everyone else is in motion, alternating, over time, between high and low to maintain equality.

Currently, due to the $45 "bad guy" effect the people on one side of the teeter-totter, the high-enders — those using excessive quantities of water per meter — are riding high. That's because their end is sparsely populated, the other residents having slid to the low-end.

On that low end, jam-packed together and stuck to the ground screaming in frustration, is the mass of users who consume little water. Since all users must play the game, the only way for the low-enders to rise is to empty their pockets of money by throwing it at the high-enders as a subsidy. Thus the high-enders get most of the water yet pay, proportionally, the least.

In "fair-share" world, if you use a gallon, you pay for a gallon, whether single-family residence, multiplex, commercial or bulk. It's a "balanced" world — everyone rides the stable middle of the teeter-totter. "Fair share" will fully fund the city's necessary water and sewer operations, and maintenance costs under normal conditions — just as now.

However, there's still a significant but elusive ghost wandering around somewhere in the murky structure. But I've got my ghost-buster headlight turned-on, and I'm vigorously tracking it.

For the detail oriented, here are some numbers (all calculations are mine and exclude the 7.5 percent city tax): Calculate your fair share by simply multiplying your monthly water use by .0275. This includes sewer. Example: A single-family residence (two-thirds of all meter users) using 1,000 gallons/month, your fair share — 1,000 x .0275 — is about $28 vs. $60 now.

Use less, pay less; use more, pay more.

Now, consider a high-ender four-plex extreme user, each unit averaging, in 2010, an incredible 24,000 gallons per month. Each apartment, previously incurring a $588 per month cost at the commercial rate, now, under the current regime, ordinance 11-94S, pays only $390. But under "fair share," it should be paying $660 a month per apartment. In either case, commercial or 94S, it's being heavily subsidized by low-enders.

I see no compelling reason why the old blighted water and sewer rate structure can't eventually be chopped down and carefully replanted with full user involvment, and — as a final stroke — rid the town of this ill-smelling presence so that fair-minded Homer citizens can sleep soundly at night.

Larry Slone is a semi-retired, longtime area resident. He writes he "recently completed building his Homer tri-plex and now has time on his hands — some will say too much time."