Weeks after religious leaders stormed a D.C. Council hearing to protest the effect of growing water bill fees on places of worship, they learned relief may not be coming to them anytime soon.
Criticism is mounting of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s proposed plan to provide relief for the city’s growing water bills that are the result of a federal mandate to clean up the city’s rivers and the fees used to support the cleanup.
During a council hearing Tuesday, Jenny Reed, the mayor’s budget director, revealed details about Bowser’s proposed water bill hardship program to aid low- and moderate-income residents, nonprofit organizations and cemeteries that showed that a majority of the fund will be dedicated to residents.
According to Reed, the city hopes D.C. Water will match its $6 million investment into a fund from which $9 million will be used to help residents experiencing water bill hardship while $2 million would be used to assist nonprofits and $500,000 would be used to help cemeteries in the city cope with mounting water bills.
Pastor George C. Gilbert of Holy Trinity United Baptist Church in Northeast said the church’s water bill averages about $1,100.
“The monies that we have to spend could be better used to help us with our ministries to assist the poor and the needy,” Gilbert said.
Though calls for broad relief have been made, the administration stands behind its decision to target its efforts.
“The administration believes that targeted relief for low and moderate income residential ratepayers and nonprofits that demonstrate a hardship is a more beneficial policy,” Reed said.
The District’s water bills have increased since 2009, at the close of a federal lawsuit that mandated the local authorities to stop raw sewage from flowing into area rivers. A $2.7 billion underground tunnel system lay as the solution for compliance with the federal mandate to clean up the city’s rivers, but also the cause of the implementation of the growing Clean Rivers Impervious Area Charge (CRIAC), which has grown dramatically over the years.
Reed said in 2009 the average family in D.C. paid $15 annually for the fee; now, the same families pay about $300 per year in CRIAC fees as well as other growing fees on the standard water bill.
The Bowser administration has called for D.C. Water to match their investment in a hardship fund, freeze rate increases for at least three years and develop strategies to mitigate future rate increases. But officials said is it not that easy.
Henderson Brown, D.C. Water’s interim general manager, said he spent time in March and April traveling to various parts of the city to meet with residents about their growing water bills.
“After we explained the factors related to the consent decree that established the schedule of the Clean Rivers project, we believe customers came away with an understanding, more clearly, of why their bills have increased,” he said.
Brown said the tunnel project would cost $636 million over the next five years, and without additional funding sources, the company would have no choice but to raise bill rates.
“Many of [the customers] believed, as I do, that other funding sources are needed beyond our ratepayers to pay for clean rivers since residents, visitors and others all benefit from the project,” he said.
Former D.C. Water board member Alan Roth said if the city paid its fair share of the increasing clean-river fees, relief could be offered to all District residents and businesses rather than a select few.
“The right way is to amend the law so that the Districts pay the approximate $41 million attributable in the coming year to its own impervious services,” Roth said.
He said if the government paid the same fees to account for the cleanup of the stormwater runoff created by public roads, sidewalks and alleys, every other water bill payer could see a 30 to 38 percent reduction in their CRIAC fees.
“Respectfully, I submit that creating a new bureaucracy to pick winners and losers with an inadequate pool of money, and starting a food fight among churches, cemeteries, schools and low-income residents for their share of the pie is the wrong way to solve this problem,” Roth said.