Sunday, February 06, 2000

Sprawl boosting water bills

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Richard and Lois Ille loved everything about their long-awaited move from Loveland to their two-story dream house in Butler County's Union Township.

        Then they got their water bill. It was double — $35 to $40 a month — what they had been paying.

        “Talk about sticker shock,” Ms. Ille says. “When I got my water bills here, I couldn't believe it. I didn't think water was that scarce a commodity out here.”

        The Illes are among hundreds of families finding that higher water rates go with the move from Cincinnati's closer-in neighborhoods to the growing outer suburbs.

        The difference can be considerable. An Enquirer review of water rates in the eight-county metro area finds a wide disparity in quarterly household bills — from a high of $91 in parts of Butler County to a low of $32 in Cleves.

        Overall, the cost of water has risen about 70 percent in Greater Cincinnati over the past decade, the review of utili ty surveys and spot checks of water bills shows. Water is still one of the cheapest commodities, but its cost is getting increased attention as the metro area sprawls and dozens of utilities work to keep up.

        “The population pressure on water supplies has been enormously high,” says Charles Berry, a professor of economics at the University of Cincinnati. “Some of these counties have just blown themselves out of sight.”

        In fast-growing Butler County, the cost of water has increased 21/2 times from 1989 to 1999, according to a survey last year of area utilities by the Englewood, Ohio, water department.

        Butler officials say rapid residential, commercial and industrial growth have forced the county to double the size of its water system since 1989. More than $25 million in improvements have helped relieve summer water-use restrictions for 30,000 customers in Butler's Union, Liberty and Fairfield townships.

        But the price for that convenience is steeper water rates.

        “The system does have to be paid for,” says Tony Parrott, director of Butler County Environmental Services, the county water department.

        High rates also stem from what county officials say is Butler's expensive water arrangement with the city of Hamilton.

        In 1989, the county signed a contract to buy most of its water from Hamilton until 2014. The price Butler pays for Hamilton water affects how much the county charges its water customers.

        Two years ago, the county sued Hamilton, accusing the city of overcharging the county. A judge threw out the lawsuit last December. The case is being appealed.

        Elsewhere, bills have at least doubled since 1989 in Franklin, Mason, Hamilton and Oxford, according to the Englewood survey.

        Smaller water providers such as these often have higher rates than big operations like Cincinnati Water Works because they have fewer customers to pay for capital improvements. Still, many residents prefer to maintain the smaller, local systems.

        In Kentucky, Newport voters re jected a proposal on last November's general election ballot to merge its water system with the Northern Kentucky Service District, which serves Kenton and Campbell counties. Voters chose slightly higher rates over the loss of their 125-year-old water system.

        “Trying to meet federal and state regulations for water is going to be difficult with 6,000 customers,” Newport City Manager Philip Ciafardini says. “But a lot of people feel more comfortable with their own system. It's more emotional than anything.”

        In Ohio, Milford has spent more than $1 million in the past six years for capital improvements to its 97-year-old water system. That cost has been passed on to customers, who now have some of the area's highest bills.

        “A smaller utility is going to be prone to wider swings in rate increases,” says Steve Wagner, Milford's director of finance. “When we have to replace something major, it will have an immediate impact on rates. But a lot of people like to have control over their utility systems.”

        Rural areas tend to have higher water rates because the cost of running miles and miles of water lines is shared by a sparse population.

        For instance, the Southwest Regional Water District, which serves the primarily rural portions of Butler County, charges more than Butler County Environmental Services, which serves areas packed with subdivisions.

        The average residential customer pays Southwest Regional $99 over three months, $8 higher than the rate for the average Butler County water user.

        “We have 20 customers per mile of water line, while Cincinnati has 60,” says Robert Hubbard, Southwest Regional water manager. “Our service base is a lot different.”

        Higher water costs aren't likely to bankrupt families who move to the Tristate's outer suburbs.

        The Illes, recent empty-nesters with the departure of the last of their five grown children, love the view of the valley from their hilltop home. On a clear day, they can see the top of the downtown Cincinnati skyline.

        But the high water bills are a sticking point.

        “I'm not complaining because I can't afford it,” Ms. Ille says. “I'm complaining because I think it's ridiculous.”

        Mr. Berry says the cost of public water still beats the alternative.

        “Bottled water is $1 a gallon,” he says. “Eighteen-thousand gallons in three months could bankrupt you.”

        Average residential water bills from the Tristate's largest providers, based on the consumption of 18,700 gallons over three months:

        Butler County: $91.10

        Oxford: $75.14

        Milford: $70.70

        Campbell County: $66.93

        Newport:; $59.50

        Indian Hill: $54.50

        Wyoming: $53.80

        Warren County: $52.55

        Reading: $52.50

        Mason: $49.56

        Kenton County: $49.29

        Glendale: $49.15

        Harrison: $48.30

        Clermont County: $47.70

        Norwood: $45.03

        Hamilton: $44.50

        Lockland: $42.41

        Cincinnati: $39.41, city residents; $47.19, county residents

        Middletown: $39.17

        Fairfield: $38.61

        Loveland: $35.10

        Lawrenceburg: $33.90

        Cleves: $32.39

        Sources: Cincinnati Water Works survey, November 1999; Enquirer research


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