By Michael Howell
For the Town of Stevensville sending out water bills this month was nothing like a routine operation. In fact, according to Mayor Gene Mim Mack, Town Hall has been snowed under for the last two weeks dealing with the response as about 150 of the recipients either called or came into the office, some with complaints and all with questions, about their water bill.
It was the first time since the automatic water meter installation program was finished and people were all being billed according to the new rates. The base rate paid by all unmetered users in the past was $40 per month. The new base rate dropped to $29.12 for the first 3,000 gallons and $1.85 per thousand gallons after that.
“I think when people heard that the base rate was dropping they thought their water bill would go down,” said Mim Mack. The cost of water has actually gone up as a steady rate increase was instituted as part of the town’s water system improvement project. The base rate volume of 3,000 gallons doesn’t go very far. The average monthly use in town is 9,000 to 17,000 gallons per month.
This fact hit home with Nancy Voth, who wrote the town a letter. She said her family of three in the dead of winter with no outside use used quite a bit more than 3,000 gallons.
“How are we supposed to survive and keep our property in good working order if all we can use is 3,000 gallons per month?” she asked in her letter. “Yes, we can use more than that, but who can afford it?…What about the City Ordinance that requires the property owners to keep up their lawns? What happened to the fact that when these meters were installed it was supposed to help us by lowering the rates, now they have gone up substantially to the point that I don’t know how I am supposed to afford this.”
“I think a lot of people just didn’t realize how much water they were really using,” said Utility Clerk Denise Philley. So she put together a fact sheet to help make things a little clearer.
You can kiss the notion of paying only the base rate good-bye as soon as you have turned your sprinkler on, for instance. The average underground sprinkler system uses 5 gallons per minute per sprinkler head. Six sprinkler heads in one zone will use 30 gallons per minute. Watering one such zone for an hour uses 1,800 gallons. If you water four such zones you are up to 7,200 gallons per hour. If you do that three times a week you are consuming about 21,600 gallons.
Another thing people generally have not been aware of is how much water may be leaking from their system.
Not only can the town’s new water meters be read automatically from a passing vehicle but they will also signal when a leak has been detected. That is when the water use runs uninterruptedly for 24 hours. If the water does stop within 24 hours the meter will reset itself. But if it doesn’t stop in 24 hours, the leak is red flagged by the meter reader and a written notice is sent to the property owner.
Even a small leak can spew a lot of water over time.
Under 60 pounds per square inch of pressure a leak the size of a pin head will leak 6,000 gallons per month. A hole twice that size will spew 25,000 gallons per month. A quarter inch hole in a water line will leak about 400,000 gallons per month.”
“It’s up to the homeowner to find and stop the leaks,” said Philley, But the town will give you a chance by charging a flat rate for 60 days. After that, the bill will reflect what the meter reads whether the leak has been fixed or not.
The town is also providing an information sheet on 100 ways to conserve water and has also adopted a program for establishing a payment plan for those who can’t afford to pay their bills promptly each month.
Philley said that given the number of complaints she has received she was completely flabbergasted that no one from the public showed up at the last council meeting when the situation was being discussed.
“It’s the little old grandmothers that break my heart,” said Philley. “If you are living on $320 per month in social security payments it is really hard to pay $150 per month just for your water.”
Mayor Mim Mack said, “We’ve heard from the seniors about the hardship involved.” and He said the town was aggressively seeking programs to help those in need, especially seniors, with water bill relief.
“We hope to have some kind of plan in place in two weeks,” he said.
In other business the Town Council:
• issued a Special Event Permit for the Wandler Family Reunion;
• offered a selection of insurance plans to employees and agreed to pay $450 per month per employee toward the plan of their choice. Mim Mack said that the cost of insurance had made a jump and employees will have to scrutinize the various plan options carefully.
• approved the sale of about $12,000 in shares of Principal Financial Group common stock. Mim Mack said that the stock certificate had been found but no record of why it was purchased or anything of its history. Mim Mack said that it is also a fact that state law does not allow towns to own such stock, so it is being sold and the money placed in the general fund.