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On Tuesday night, the county council passed two ordinances, which have the effect of penalizing citizens for conservation of water and gas. The ordinances increase the “service charge,” the fixed-rate “tax” paid every month by every consumer regardless of usage. In the case of natural gas this increase was close to 50 percent. Increasing the service charge runs counter to the county taxpayer funded message of conservation.
The justification for the service charge is that there is a fixed infrastructure cost for delivering gas to a customer regardless of usage. The fixed charge, plus a “commodity charge” based on usage, makes up your bill. However, all retail businesses have fixed charges, only the monopoly utilities are able to pass these on to the consumer independently of the commodity charge.
The local filling stations have fixed infrastructure cost in terms of gas pumps, tanks, buildings, a cashier, etc. They do not charge you a “service charge” plus a commodity charge. If fuel stations charged $30 plus 50 cents a gallon, few people would pay the premium cost for a fuel efficient car since there would be minimal offsetting savings at the pump.
Yet this is the effect of the decision made by the council. The residents using the most natural gas will see the largest decrease in their bills. The consumer who has taken to heart the utilities department’s conservation message, who has insulated and installed energy efficient appliances, will see the lowest percentage decrease or even an increase in their gas bill.
The sewer rate increase is partly a result of county residents conserving water. Your sewer bill is generally linked to your water usage and, to recoup revenue lost because residents have become smart about water, both the regressive service charge and the commodity charge are increasing.
The message from council is irrational and inconsistent. They continue to fund conservation efforts with our tax dollars, yet pass a rating scheme with the largest percentage increase on those who conserve most. For conservation spending to be most effective, the billing penalties must be for those who fail to conserve.
Water rates are next. The Council has a chance to correct the errors of Tuesday. An ordinance that includes a significant decrease in the service charge coupled with changes in the commodity rate would enable them to promote a rational conservation message and display some consistency in how they spend the taxpayer dollars.