The impending increase in water costs in Gainesville and Hall County has some customers boiling mad.
The Times has received letters protesting the public utilities department’s shift from flat rates to a tiered pricing level. And the public utilities’ customer service department also has been flooded with complaints about higher prices.
Some blame it on the drought, and others blame it on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. But Gainesville city officials say the new rate system, dubbed "conservation pricing," is required by the Metro North Georgia Water Planning District.
Nearly four years ago, district officials required all 16 counties in the Metro Atlanta area to develop a plan for water conservation pricing. Gainesville was one of the last to develop its pricing plan, City Manager Bryan Shuler said.
The Gainesville City Council adopted the conservation rates as part of the city’s budget in June. The rates, which require customers to pay more when they use more, go into effect Tuesday.
About one-fifth of the public utilities department’s 43,000 residential customers got a letter last month warning that the tiered rate system may affect their bills.
Kelly Randall, director of Gainesville’s public utilities, said the department sent the letter to all residential customers who had used more than 10 ccf of water for at least three billing cycles this year.
The letter sparked complaints from those worried that the drought and poor planning had caused a spike in their water bills.
But Randall says water rates would be higher even without the drought and tiered pricing levels.
"(The letter) indicates that the change in your water bill is totally a response to water conservation pricing."
The department has raised water rates anywhere from 3 to 5 percent every January, Randall said.
"We try to have a nominal increase each year, somewhat reflecting inflation," Randall said.
As of Tuesday, the base rate for water customers inside the city of Gainesville will increase from $1.86 to $1.92 (for up to 10 ccf), which is about a 3 percent increase. Water usage is calculated in cubic feet; 1 ccf is equal to 100 cubic feet of water, or 748 gallons.
For customers outside the city limits, the base rate increases by about 5 percent, from $3.66 to $3.84 (for up to 10 ccf).
The tiered pricing affects those using more than 10 ccf of water every month. Those users will have to pay more for every 100 cubic feet they use above 10 ccf.
City customers who use between 11 and 18 ccf will pay $2.40 per 100 cubic feet of water. When usage rises above 18 ccf of water, city customers will pay $2.88 per 100 cubic feet.
Customers outside the city, on the other hand, will pay $4.80 for every 100 cubic feet of water used above 10 ccf, and will pay $5.76 for every 100 cubic feet above 18 ccf.
"The water conservation pricing ... we project it will only affect a small percentage," Randall said. "And for that matter, this year, it probably won’t affect anybody, because nobody’s allowed to use outdoor water."
Phyllis Townsend, senior customer service specialist for Gainesville’s public utilities department, said that in her 19 years there, she’s found that customers usually complain when the rates change.
"Ever since I’ve been here, there’s somebody always complaining," Townsend said.
But this year’s rate change has resulted in more complaints than in years past.
"I think it’s all because of ... the conservation," Townsend said. "I think a lot of people have been upset with that."
One major criticism of the department’s tiered water rates is that they are not fair to those with larger households. One woman had such a complaint at the Gainesville City Council’s last meeting of the year, and Townsend said it is one of the complaints she hears most often from water customers.
"I think there definitely is some truth in the fact that a large family certainly wouldn’t be able to use as much water per person as a small family," Randall said.
Randall contends that the department tried to accommodate larger households when it calculated the new pricing system.
The average household has about three people living in it, and uses about 6 ccf, or 4,488 gallons, of water every month, Randall said.
"We added four units on (to the average) to accommodate for the large user, so even the large family shouldn’t see an effect from the rate structure," Randall said. "They were given enough water, we felt, for their basic human needs."
Shuler said the council will continue to look at how to make the pricing plan better in the future.
Randall has his own ideas about a fair pricing system.
"I think that the fairest structure would one day be able to average each bill ... so each customer has their own average. When they go over 125 percent of their own average, that’s when the rate structure would kick in."
It’s an idea that the department is currently trying out on its commercial customers, but is not quite ready to expand to the masses of residential customers. At this point, such a system would be too complicated for the utility department’s billing software.
"That’s what we were trying to do, is keep things simple so that we were putting a system in place that would actually work," Randall said.