Water, sewer scam is artful, but disingenuous

Published 12:00 am Monday, April 5, 2010

This column may sound familiar.

Same song, 85th verse.

With little if any fanfare, except what’s been written in this newspaper, the current crop of city officials just reached in the pockets of all its residential water customers and plucked another $136.80.

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“Had to do it,” they said. “No choice.”

Well, fine. But read the small print.

Unlike the rate roller-coaster residents rode during the natural gas price fluctuations over the past five years, the bills for city water and sewer customers aren’t rising because the city’s costs are higher.

Officials say the rates are rising (1) to pay back deficits on the books of the two city-owned utility companies, (2) to get them operating on a break-even basis and (3) to create a contingency fund (perhaps) for maintenance and repairs.

Charlie Mitchell is executive editor of The Vicksburg Post. Write to him at Box 821668, Vicksburg, MS 39182, or e-mail.

Nothing wrong with that. It makes perfectly good sense for any utility company, public or private, to have, at a minimum, income matching expenses.

Here’s where the treachery, such as it is, can be found:

• The water and sewer utilities don’t have bank balances in the red. Operational supplements have been being paid by — you guessed it — taxpayers via the city general fund.

• With customers paying new rates starting this month, those supplements will (1) no longer be needed and (2) the city’s general fund is to be repaid past amounts advanced.

• That means millions that had been going to water and gas will remain in the city general fund to be used for other purposes.

It’s like having a child who buys his video games with his allowance suddenly getting a separate video game allowance without reducing his basic allowance.

In August and September, when the time comes to create a budget and set a tax rate, we’ll hear from City Hall how times are tight and how hard it is to avoid raising taxes. No one will mention that jacking up the water and sewer rates has provided a pretty decent cushion.

To keep things even for citizens, tax rates would be cut dollar-for-dollar to match the utility increases. But most people — even though their wallets will be $136.80 lighter — will be relieved if there’s no property tax rate hike.

In taking this approach to obtaining more money for city operations with few people noticing, Mayor Paul Winfield and Aldermen Sid Beauman and Michael Mayfield are continuing a practice started at least 50 years ago.

There was a time when garbage collection was “free” in that it was paid for from city funds with no separate assessment. Then about $1 a month was added as a line on water bills, but there was no corresponding reduction in tax rates so the fee just added to city revenue overall.

Incrementally, this has been done time and again. Residential garbage fees are now $19.95 per month.

A couple with normal cooking, bathing and clothes-washing routines — not watering flowers or washing cars — will use about 5,000 gallons of water per month. The fees for that amount have been $13.61 to buy the water and $16.65 to dispose of it. This month, the new rates are $17.96 and $23.70. Over a year, the increase is $136.80. (It will be a lot more for businesses and other commercial users and those who wash cars, fill swimming pools or water lawns or gardens.)

Never let anyone tell you that taxes can’t be raised artfully.

Local officials here and no doubt in dozens of other cities have discovered how to extract more money from residents while attracting few complaints.

“Had to do it,” they say. “No choice.”