Assembly, Public Works need to reconsider fee hike

Posted: Sunday, January 23, 2005

Vantage Point By Robert Hale, publisher of the Juneau Empire.

If Juneau bed-and-breakfast owners are correct in their assessment of what a water-fee hike will do to their home-based businesses, the city's Assembly and its Public Works Department surely would need to reconsider its rate structures.

At issue is the city's move to metering residential users who in the past have paid a flat rate for unlimited use of water and to process the wastewater they produce. Under that structure, bed-and-breakfast operators have paid the same water rates as have single-family users. That changed late in 2003, however, when the city classified bed-and-breakfasts, duplexes and accessory apartments as metered residential users.

Under the new classification, those water customers moved to a rate structure that has them paying a flat fee of $15.47 for the first 4,000 gallons of water they use, and $2.08 for each additional 1,000 gallons they use. Once metered, they will pay $54.91 for their first 4,000 gallons, and $7.30 per additional 1,000 gallons.

B&B owners are crying foul, claiming the rate hikes, depending on the number of gallons of water they use each month, will range from 215 percent to 770 percent. The city's Public Works Department argues that the new structure actually would have B&B operators and similar users paying less for water if they use less, thereby encouraging conservation. I tend to think the former is more true than the latter, simply because a bed-and-breakfast that has one, two or more hot tubs is likely to use the same or more water than it is to use less.

Even if the increase, under the new fee structure, was at 50, 75 or 100 percent, that's still a bit of a lick for small businesses that are independently owned and operated. One argument made by B&B owners is that the threshold of 4,000 gallons per month is unrealistically low, and that an average household uses more like 12,000 gallons of water per month.

The difference in water rates, under the current formula and the metered one, would look like this with usage of 8,000 gallons per month: a flat rate of $15.47 for the first 4,000 gallons, plus $8.32 for the additional 4,000 gallons under the current plan. That's 23.79 for a month's worth of water. Under the meter plan, the first 4,000 gallons cost 54.91, plus 29.20 for the additional 4,000. Total cost: $84.11

Between the two plans, at a total cost of $23.79 and $84.11, respectively, the difference is $60.32. Percentage-wise, the rate hike is more than three times, and that does seem excessive.

To fight the change, some B&B owners are trying to prevent the city from installing meters, and the public works department is asking the Juneau Assembly for enforcement powers to fine property owners who refuse meters. Surely the two sides can find a fair and reasonable compromise to this, especially when the city is feeling hard-pressed to find the $4.5 million it will take to purchase and install some 7,000 meters.

Neither the city nor owners of B&Bs, duplexes and accessory apartments will benefit if exorbitant fee hikes are allowed to stand, thereby forcing some small enterprises out of business. It would make sense for the Assembly and the Public Works Department to craft a plan that provides for more reasonable rate increases and for additional, incremental hikes to be phased in over time. Making such a dramatic change all at once will be more counterproductive than beneficial to either side.

• Robert Hale is publisher of the Juneau Empire. He can be reached at robert.hale@juneauempire.com.



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