Just add dough – Water Dept. says higher bills are due to more usage

The talk of the town in many corners this past week has been about high water bills that have been appearing in residents’ mailboxes. In fact, many residents have been complaining to the local water department about the bills and a few even took the time to attend a recent Town Council meeting to question the bills they’ve received.

The complaint from many residents is that they feel their usage has gone down over previous years, yet their water bills have gone up.

However, Winthrop Public Works Director David Hickey said this week that any suggestions that rates have been raised or that meters have been misread are off-base. The higher rates, according to Hickey, are simply due to a high usage during the billing period for which the bills were sent – July, August and September.

”We’re certainly getting the calls and even had quite a large number of people coming into the office to dispute their bills, but the truth is that the rates haven’t changed,” said Hickey. “The only thing that has changed is the amount of water people were using.”

Hickey’s explanation is supported by the meter readings on the town’s main water feed coming into Winthrop. A look at the consumption figures for water usage in town this past summer clearly shows that Winthropites used more water this past summer than in past years, particularly during the period between readings on July 26 and August 29. During that one month period, Winthrop used 447,700 gallons of water through the main meter, but on the month before and after that month, Winthrop recorded 233,379 gallons the previous month and 236,609 gallons the next month.

Also, a review of past years supports Hickey’s assessment of the dry season this year. For instance in late July to Late August period in 2009, residents only used 232,259 gallons for the period, nearly fifty percent less than this year, during a month that saw much more rain. In fact, going back to April 2006, the town has only seen water consumption rates 400,000 gallons plus range six times and has only seen rates above that twice, in July of 2008 and September of 2007, the consumption rates peaked in the 600,000 gallons range. Hickey said he believes a number of factors are causing the confusion. For one thing, this past summer was one of the driest summers in recent memory and for another, people have forgotten how much they were watering their grass and using water to cool off during that time and lastly, the billing cycle (now almost three months past) has added to the confusion and doubt as well.

“The last few years have actually been very wet summers around here and then this year we had one of the driest summers we’ve had since I’ve been here,” said Hickey. “Add that to the fact that the bills are for a quarter that happened three months ago and I think people have just forgotten how much water they used.”

Hickey even explained that a review of his own family’s past summertime water bills showed that he saw an increase from around 4400-$450 per summer quarter in years past to $580 this year.  “That translates directly to the average increase in water bills for that quarter, which was around 20 percent,” he explained. “The point is that people use more water when it is drier, and that is what happened this year.”

Hickey also said that the disruption caused by this summer’s water bills could be alleviated somewhat by switching to a monthly billing system, something that has been debated internally at the water department and at Town Hall.

“If customers got a bill in August that was 50 percent higher than normal, they would be able to immediately assign a cost to their pools or green grass, etc and be able to assess their decisions quicker,” said Hickey.

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