Friday, May 17, 2024

Somerville’s overhaul of aging infrastructure to prevent flooding is contributing to higher water and sewer bills. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Help for people concerned about rising water and sewer charges should be in place in Somerville with the arrival of 2025, with some changes more obvious than others. 

A structure that forces people in apartments or other multifamily structures into higher payment tiers is likely to be adjusted, and billing will go monthly to make it more manageable than the current cycle asking payment every four months, said Dave Fox, vice president of a city consultant called Raftelis. Fire-protection fees will also be charged more precisely.

“We don’t want to just implement something that sounds good and has a fancy name,” Fox told the Somerville City Council at its Thursday meeting. “We want to implement something that is going to provide relief.“

Rates are going up for a few reasons, including that the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority is charging more to deliver clean drinking water and treat the city’s wastewater, and that the city is overhauling its aging infrastructure to prevent flooding, Fox said. Raftelis learned that this is news to too many residents, who conflate their water bill increases with a meter changeout issue the city has been dealing with over the past few months.

Maybe as a result, there is little to no awareness from residents can ask help, such as a Low-Income Household Water Assistance Program from which the city has been distributing funds for the past year, one reason Raftelis stresses good communication as part of a solution, Fox said. Another largely unknown feature is that customers can make partial payments, albeit with interest, to “start chipping away” at a big bill.

City administration had its own misconceptions about water bill relief when bringing on Raftelis, and asked it originally to look at income-based relief. But a “standard” ratepayer-funded customer assistance program would not be right for Somerville, because the state Department of Revenue has determined it’s “illegal” to charge one group of customers more to give another group of customers lower bills, Fox said.

It’s also hard to get relief directly to tenants in a city with so many multifamily dwellings of so many kinds. “How can we guarantee that that relief is going to make its way down to the tenants?” Fox said. Done wrong, a change risks “doing more harm than good.”

There are still “plenty of solutions,” he said.

More specific tiers

The biggest impact is likely to come from restructuring billing tiers from a one-size-fits-all approach for customers whether they’re residential or commercial, in single-family homes or multifamily, or a small or big business. “We’d like to potentially expand the customer classifications,” Fox said. The tier cut-offs on water and sewage use may be “vastly different than what you have today,” charging certain kinds of customers unit rates within much wider ranges rather than “stepping through the system” at the same rate as a totally different kind of user.

“There is across-the-board significant interest in doing something, enhancing equity and promoting affordability,” Fox said, and urgency is felt especially for the the poorest residents. “Low-income is low-income. They’re having a tough time paying every single one of their bills, not just water and sewer, and any dollar that we can free up is a dollar that can be spent elsewhere.”

The goal is to have all improvements in place Jan. 1, Fox said.

A tilt toward commercial

Councilor at large Willie Burnley noted that the council has limited jurisdiction and asked if the solutions provided are more geared to the city’s administration or the council through changes in city law. Most of them are administrative and would have to be implemented through the Mayor’s Office and staff.

“This is an incredibly consequential work that you all are doing,” Burnley said. “It’s quite unfortunate that the city finds itself in this position, and that our residents are struck with anxiety about the ways that their economic futures are looking … regarding their ability to stay here. And I hope we can find a way to do this that is more equitable, that perhaps ships as much of the burden off of residents on onto commercial properties.”

After questioning from the rest of the council, president Ben Ewen-Campen referred the item to committee.

“This is very important work,” Ewen-Campen said. “I look forward to Jan. 1.”