Size Still Matters
Resident takes city to court over water metering system
By Christie Chisholm
In Albuquerque, approximately 10,000 households are paying more than they need to on their water bill. That's right, you heard me. And if you belong to one of these households, you've probably been paying extra since you moved into your home—which for some, could be more than 20 years ago. The potential extra cost can be found in the "fixed" charge that comes with your water bill that's based on the size of the water meter that you have on your system. It may not seem like much at first but when added up every month over the course of 23 years, it's certainly enough to get Gary Williams, a retired military officer, riled up. It's also apparently enough to get him to take the city to court.
Alibi readers might recall a water metering story that appeared last November ["Size Does Matter," Nov. 18-24], when Richard Gold, a Northeast Heights resident, discovered, through an unfortunate series of events, that he had been paying $35 more than necessary on his water bill every month for the last 13 years—which added up to about $5,460.
A typical residential water and sewer bill is split into two parts: one, which is based on consumption, or how much water you use every month; and a second, which is a fixed base rate for service. The base rate depends on the size of the pipe you have on your metering system. Most residential meters fall in between the three-quarter-inch and one-and-a-quarter-inch range (sizes 1 through 3, respectively). Regardless of how much water you use in a month, your base rate stays the same, which means that if two separate homes use the same amount of water in a month, and one has a size 1 meter, and the other has a size 3 meter, the latter one will pay more than the first.
Mr. Gold discovered you can have your meter size changed relatively easily, as long as you're willing to fork over $85 (which, considering your long-term savings, could definitely be worth it). The dough goes toward a Water Service Reduction Request form, and entails a city service person coming out to your house and installing a "restrictor plate" onto your system (or sometimes putting in a new meter), thereby lowering the size of your meter. Then, voila! Your size 3 system has officially been downgraded to a size 1, and from that point on you pay less on your water bill every month.
It also turns out that there really isn't much of a difference between meter sizes. Larger sizes have a larger capacity for water. Which means that if you make a habit of filling up your swimming pool, watering your front and back lawns, and taking a shower all at once, you may want to opt for a larger size, which would accommodate the needed pressure for such an appetite. If, however, your watering habits are a bit more conservative (as they should be for all of us living in the desert), then a smaller size should work just fine. In fact, Gold, who had his meter reduced last fall, says that he hasn't noticed any change in pressure in his system.
Steve Bockemeier, Manager of the Utility Engineering and Planning Division with the Water Utility Department, does mention, however, that this trend could differ depending on what pressure zone you live in. Some areas of the city, he says, might experience a noticeable decrease in water pressure, but most would not.
But the story doesn't end there, because it turns out that Gold isn't the only one who noticed this little glitch in the system—namely, that this option is available and the water utility department doesn't make a habit of informing customers about it. Which is exactly why Gary Williams decided to file a lawsuit against the city after he came across this little glitch three years ago.
The lawsuit, which could possibly become a class-action, asks that the city inform customers about this option and says that by not doing so, the city isn't treating citizens equally.
"I think that you should be charged based on the amount of water that you use; and if you're not charged on the amount of water you use, then you're not being treated equally and fairly," says Williams, who, after living in his house for nearly 23 years, estimates that he's paid $8,000 more than he should have.
The lawsuit also asks that customers with larger meter sizes be reimbursed for the amount that they've paid over the years beyond what the cost would have been for a size 1 meter. This request, however, was denied in a District Court hearing on April 5; and it is yet to be determined whether an appeal will be sought on that decision, says Tanya Scott, an attorney on Williams' case. Williams says that whether the lawsuit will become a class action will be determined in another hearing on April 27. If it does become a class-action, at least 18 other potential plaintiffs who are waiting in the wings will join in the suit, but the outcome of the case would affect all water customers who have been charged higher base fees.
But Stephen Gonzales, Customer Services Manager for the Water Utility Department, says that the city has made efforts in the past to notify customers about reducing their meter size, mainly by sending out inserts with monthly bills, but admits that it has been quite some time since their last insert. Gonzales does say, however, that in response to the lawsuit, the city is now more aware of this need and is planning on either sending out more inserts or including a message on the water bill itself that will clue customers in.
Additionally, Mark Sanchez, Executive Director of the Albuquerque/Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority, says that, unrelated to the lawsuit, a significant water conservation campaign will be launched within the next six months to address concerns raised by the plaintiffs. He says that there will also be an effort to reconfigure the rate structure to be based more on consumption rather than on fixed rates.
"We're not just reacting to a lawsuit, we're reacting to things that need to change because they just make sense," says Sanchez.
Still, Gold and Williams remain skeptical.
Williams, who has sat through a number of mediation meetings with the city where he suggested simple ways to get out the word to customers, says that the city has yet to act on any of his recommendations. He also has concerns about the necessity for paying $85 to get your meter switched, claiming that sometimes the city won't even physically add the restrictor plate to change the size of the system, instead simply changing the system size on record.
"If they don't physically come out and do something," he says, "then why are you paying the $85? Just to have some clerk in the billing department change you from a size 3 to a size 1? That doesn't seem like it's worth $85."
Regardless, it looks like the city is planning on taking action in the near future to inform customers about lowering their meter size, which should please disgruntled city water customers. "It's incumbent upon the utilities company to tell you [about this option]," Gold says.
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