A request for a change in utility billing policies during the Sept. 3 Toledo City Council meeting provoked a detailed discussion among officials as to why the city bills the way it does.
Resident Eric Duerst approached the council that night to propose an annual overage policy for the city’s sewer and water services, stating the current 4,000-gallon per month limit could instead be treated as a 48,000-gallon annual limit, allowing more flexibility in the event of an overage.
"During the summer months, especially the July-August cycle, many of us have gardens and go beyond the allotment," said Duerst. "When we look at our water consumption for the year, quite often we’re under the 48,000, but we’ve already paid an overage for one or two of those billing cycles."
Mayor Jerry Pratt, who had spoken with Duerst beforehand, said he liked the concept, but stated a change from monthly overages to yearly overages would require a change in ordinance, as well as potentially create cumbersome yearly charges for those who are regularly exceeding monthly limits.
"Suddenly, in January, you’re getting a monstrous bill, and we’re going to get a lot of non-payments at that point," he said, adding the city’s billing software is not currently set up to keep track of yearly overages, and such a change in policy would require city staff to review each bill by hand to calculate overages at the end of the year.
Duerst’s request had been part of a series of recent council discussions on utility billing since local property owner Roger Johnigk aired a complaint Aug. 5 stating the city was charging him for nine hookups when only two meters service his apartment complex at 505 5th St. At the center of Johnigk’s argument, according to attorney Jim Nelson, is the idea Johnigk is being charged for services the city is not rendering because, he said, seven of the nine hookups are not metered.
However, during the Sept. 3 meeting, the purpose behind the city’s policy of billing a base rate per living unit was clarified by City Clerk Michelle Whitten, who said Toledo must charge all living units the same rate in order to secure enough financing to continue operating the system.
"That’s what we have to look at when the council does their budget, is how much money they need to run the water department," she said in response to questions about how the 4,000-gallon rate was determined, stating the charge for the base rate is dependent on anticipated expenses and the current customer base. "So, looking at that and your customers, you have to collect ‘X’ amount of dollars."
Whitten said charging customers only for the water they use would create financial instability for a system with so few customers, with Pratt adding it would also place unfair financial burdens on those with greater rates of consumption. Outside the meeting, Whitten further clarified charges for water and sewer services are also meant to cover the maintenance and repair of the system in addition to the cost of the water flowing in and out of a unit.
With regard to the 4,000-gallon limit itself, Council Member Carol Hill explained, when the council chose to set the rate, it was after city staff had researched what the average usage was for a household in Toledo, and 4,000 gallons was selected as the most equitable rate.
"That’s what we looked at, what was fair for everybody as a household, what their normal usage was," she said.
No direct discussions regarding Johnigk’s complaint took place during the meeting, and no further action from either party has been declared as of yet. Town Crier was unable to reach Nelson for a reaction to officials’ statements prior to deadline, but he has, in previous meetings, contended clear legal precedent supports his client’s claims against the city.