It will be a shame when the city of Raleigh finally switches over to tiered water rates and the City Council has to find something else to discuss incessantly.
On Tuesday, the council found itself, once again, wondering aloud why the transition to tiered rates can’t happen sooner.
You may recall that last month it was agreed that residential water customers in Raleigh and Garner would move to a three-tier rate structure on Dec. 1. The structure is designed to encourage conservation as the rates will rise according to consumption.
City Manager Russell Allen has told the City Council on numerous occasions that Raleigh can’t make the switch until it has new billing software in place.
But on Tuesday, Councilman Russ Stephenson asked for an independent investigation to see whether that truly is the case. Yes, an investigation to see whether the city’s own staff truly knows what it is talking about.
The independent inquiry was one of a laundry list of utility-related issues that Stephenson wants both the council and the city staff to take up immediately. Others include a drought surcharge, water audits of area businesses and new capacity fees on water hook-ups.
Allen admitted serious frustration at the fact that Stephenson wasn’t buying staff’s explanation for why the shift to tiered rates can’t happen until December. Councilor Mary-Ann Baldwin said even she was frustrated by Stephenson’s request.
That caused Stephenson to play the garbage disposal card, telling anyone who would listen that the public utility staff giving them advice is the same staff that told the council it needed to ban garbage disposals. (We all know how that turned out, don’t we Neusie.)
Councilor Philip Isley eventually told his colleagues that they were exhuming a dead horse by raising the tiered rate issue, which led to a series of unfortunate horse puns.
So what’s really going on here?
Allen is recommending that the council raise water rates immediately by 17 percent to offset sluggish water sales. This unwelcome news has caused Stephenson to ask city staff why they haven’t made more progress on all the issues he’s been raising for months.
Stephenson essentially described the public utility department as being a black box that has been reticent about changing its ways. “None of us really knows what the reality is,” he said.
(Let's just hope Raleigh Public Utilities Director Dale Crisp wasn't involved in any credit default swaps.)
It was agreed on Tuesday that Stephenson’s issues would be discussed at the next council meeting on April 7. Some of Stephenson’s initiatives would encourage more conservation among Raleigh water customers, which could exasperate the revenue shortage that the department is currently experiencing. Other initiatives would create new revenue streams for the department, which could shift some of the burden away from residential rate payers.
The switch to tiered-rates has been talked about so much that it would be easy to mistakenly think of it as an elixir for all the city’s water woes. But the actual transition has the potential to introduce more instability into the department’s revenue model. The city’s consultant is designing the tiered rate structure to be revenue neutral, but the city won’t know if that’s truly the case until it puts it into practice.
In the meantime, the City Council is likely going to have to explain to customers who answered the call to conserve that their reward is an ahead-of-schedule rate hike.