SALEM - City utility customers receiving a high bill due to a service rupture, break or line burst on their property can expect a break on their sewer bill, without having to plead their case before the Utilities Commission.
The commission approved a written policy Thursday on how to handle requests for reductions on higher-than-normal water and sewer bills due to leaks or water line breaks, partially in response to a large number of these type of situations the past year.
According to the policy, the customer has to pay the total cost of the water side of the bill since the water went through the meter.
On the sewer side, though, customers will only be required to pay half of the amount over the normal usage. If it can be proven that none of the lost water entered the wastewater treatment system, then they'll only be required to pay the one-year average monthly sewer usage cost for the billing period in question.
The policy will be administered at the Salem Utilities Department billing office, with the commission only becoming involved as a mediator for unresolved issues.
"This way we have a guideline, the staff has a guideline and the public has a guideline," commission Chairman Bob Hodgson said.
The commission had been handling these requests on a case-by-case basis, routinely giving breaks on the sewer side of the bill if the water didn't go through the system or approving reductions if the water going through the sewer system was considered clean water from a break or some other similar event.
"We have been struggling for the better part of two years on how to deal with this," Hodgson said.
He asked Utilities Superintendent Don Weingart and Assistant Superintendent Matt Hoopes to come up with a policy in writing. He said to say the water going into the sewer system is clean when something like this occurs isn't really correct. If the water goes into the city's wastewater treatment system, it's being treated the same as if it came out of a toilet and there are costs involved with treatment.
He said the city is committed by statute to collect the total cost for the water if it goes through the meter, regardless of the situation. Weingart said there's no allowance on account of leaks or accidents.
In the report explaining the policy recommendation, he explained that an engineering firm looked at the costs for treatment of the wastewater, identifying costs associated with the flow, biochemical oxygen demand and suspended solid removal. The treatment also includes capital costs, debt amortization and administration costs. The total operational cost for the wastewater department for 2013 was $3,767,414.
Commission member Bennie Funderburg said he supported the recommendation, noting that in the year he's served, the commission has had to deal with these type of cases six or seven times.
"I think a policy needs established if this is going to be an ongoing issue," commission Vice Chairman Tim Weingart said.
As an example of what they've handled, the commission decided two cases and heard about a third situation during the meeting. A woman had come to the commission last month asking for help with her high water and sewer bill which occurred when her pipes froze and caused a leak in her vacant home. She had been caring for an elderly relative somewhere else and didn't have the water shut off.
The spike occurred on the February bill for usage in January, showing a cost of $573 for water consumption and $961 for the sewer portion. The commission had tabled action last month.
They agreed to follow Weingart's recommendation to split the cost of the sewer portion of the bill with the woman, cutting her cost for the sewer portion to $480 for a total bill of $1,053 for water and sewer combined. They also agreed to give her six months to pay.
In another case, a burst pipe in a garage at a property on East State Street resulted in a higher than normal water and sewer bill which was pointed out to the property owner by the utilities department. The water side was $270 and the sewer side was $452. Since it was proven that the water went into the storm drain and not the wastewater treatment system, the customer was asked to pay the water portion plus the one-year average monthly usage cost of $26.18 for a total bill of nearly $300.
In the third case, the customer was told to contact Weingart and make arrangements for a department worker to verify where the water went, then it will be handled according to the new policy. He questioned what people do when they go away for the winter.
Don Weingart said they can shut the valve off where the water comes into the residence or pay $25 to have the department shut the water off. It's another $25 to turn it back on.