SPEAKING OUT: Utilities’ billing doesn’t encourage conservation
Recently I made the move from Georgia to Florida to live on the Gulf shores of 30A. I had purchased property at Cypress Dunes last August and have yet to build. For the meantime, I’ve been renting a condo across the street in a lovely neighborhood called Topsail Village.
After a couple of water bills, I noticed a substantial increase that I haven’t been accustomed to. As someone who develops and licenses utility billing software to cities, the spike in my water bill caused me to do some quick research. Was it a leak, or a mis-read, or just an admin fee that got added for the new account?
Either way I needed to find out before time moved on. I made it a point to request that my girlfriend who lives with me, take shorter showers if possible (you know those long, steamy relaxing type). She let me know that sometimes the longer showers are used to shave her legs and not just for the sake of doing it.
With that in mind, I looked elsewhere for the culprit. Maybe it was the extra loads of clothes where we separated the colors to avoid a new shirt color. To rule a leak out, I started checking my outdoor meter for unusual changes. After two days of normal water usage, I concluded the meter wasn’t faulty and nothing out of the ordinary was occurring.
OK, so now we have a billing issue I suspected.
With my background in utility billing, the answer became crystal clear quickly. A quick visit to my water supplier’s website answered my mystery instantly as I viewed the rates posted.
I was stunned to learn the minimum I would be charged for is 6,000 gallons of water and 10,000 gallons of wastewater no matter how little I used. Could this be true? I had never seen such a high minimum before in all my research. My next step was a verification from Regional Utilities who services the local area.
I was pleased to get a same-day reply, but it got me a response that I was afraid of. The Customer Relations manager had been kind enough to send me a personalized letter that looked to be templated for routine use (I suppose the question gets asked of them quite often).
Basically it stated “... we pipe water approximately 15 miles south from our wells which warrants the rates that have been calculated by our consultants.” Also, “... we are required by the Florida Dept. of Environmental Protection to be able to provide each residence with 100 gallons per person per day of water.”
It’s later added that since the average household is 3.5 persons, the threshold of the minimum rates was set to equal the minimum required to be provided (around 6,000 gallons).
In a nutshell, what I managed to deduce from their statement is that the water utility will charge you for “what might be used” rather than “what is used.”
After reading such a statement, I replied with another email thanking and presenting them with my real-life example below:
• This month I and my girlfriend used 2,700 gallons at $60.
• I could of used 6,000 gallons at $60.
• I therefore will stop worrying about longer showers, leaving the faucet running while brushing teeth, etc.
• Ethically I want to conserve, but life is too short for the added stress (most people’s philosophy)
• I can’t possibly run into trouble by even doubling my usage, so why stress anyway?
This example was proof enough that the water utility stood to save money if I conserve. According to their website, conservation is highly recommended. So why charge me for 6,000 gallons regardless of how little I used?
This should send a red flag up to owners who rent-out their properties along the coast or use them as second homes. In essence, you will be charged for 6,000 gallons even if the properties are mostly vacant.
It doesn’t allow for lower rates such as the minimums of 1,000 gallon tiers in other nearby counties. As if that wasn’t bad enough, I learned I will also be responsible for a multi-thousand dollar impact fee upon building and pay eternally for extra fixtures in my house beyond a typical two bedroom allowance.
In closing of my reply to the water utility, I stated “if you disagree with my example above, please let me know so that I can re-educate my training in utility software development and also update my two groundwater guides I published at University libraries while working for the EPA. I hope you can see my dilemma.”
For now, the showers will run longer again and the laundry still gets separated by colors.
Jeff A. Mullins is a Santa Rosa Beach resident.