Drive Fee Hikes
By Larry Copeland, USA TODAY
ATLANTA — Most Americans don't give a second thought to
wastewater once it swirls down the drain or toilet and out of
their lives. As the sewage treatment professionals say, we
flush and forget it.
But where that wastewater goes next
affects daily life in many ways. A city's sewer system
determines whether residents can fish and swim in their rivers
and streams. And for 40 million residents in 772 communities in
the Northeast, South, Midwest and Pacific Northwest, it could
make a big dent in their wallets.
The sewage treatment systems in many
cities are outdated. Many were built more than a century ago.
They need costly upgrades to meet federal clean-water standards.
But the federal money available for such updates is a fraction
of what it was a generation ago.
The problem is part of the challenge the
nation faces in overhauling highways, bridges, mass transit and
other public works systems that are straining from decades of
wear and tear and the demands of a rapidly increasing
population. The question is how such improvements can be made
and who will pay for them.
Rates keep rising
Many communities that have antiquated
sewer systems are passing the costs of upgrades directly to
residents through higher sewer bills:
• Atlantans could see their sewer bills
almost triple over the next five years as the city tries to pay
for $3 billion in improvements. Unless the city gets federal or
state help, the average homeowner's sewer bill could go from
about $36 a month to $102 in 2008. Equally alarming in a city
that relies heavily on convention business, the monthly
water-sewer bill for a downtown hotel could rise from $27,000 to
• Indianapolis, which has some of the
nation's lowest sewer bills, expects to triple rates over the
next 15 years to pay for a $1 billion update.
• Providence has raised rates four times
in the past four years to fund the first phase of a 20-year,
$700 million project. The average annual residential bill has
gone from $135 in 2001 to $235 this year. "People are definitely
not happy about it," says Jamie Samons, spokeswoman for the
Narragansett Bay Commission, which runs Providence's sewer
• The Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer
District in Cleveland must complete a $1.3 billion update over
the next 30 years. Rates there are about $35 a month. But
"without any type of other source of funding, we're projecting a
doubling of sewer rates over the next 10 years," says William
Schatz, the district's general counsel.
The problems in these and about 770 other
communities are systems that blend sewage from homes and
businesses with runoff from streets, roofs and parking lots when
it rains. For generations, these cities dumped untreated waste
into rivers and streams whenever heavy rainfall overwhelmed the
systems' ability to carry the load to treatment plants.
Mandate for clean water
Then, in June 1969, the Cuyahoga River in
Cleveland caught fire and all that began to change. Schatz notes
that it was grease and oil on the river that caught fire — not
the river itself. But the nation saw a river seemingly so
polluted that it was in flames. That indelible image led to a
national push to clean up America's waterways and to
congressional passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972.
Cities that built separate systems for
sewage and storm water in the first place also must meet the
standards of the law and subsequent amendments. But the rules
hit particularly hard at cities and suburbs that have combined
Those communities were left with two
• They could build separate systems for
sewage and storm runoff, which would mean huge disruptions and
costs. "I'm not sure even God has enough money to do that,"
• Or they could build massive underground
tanks to hold the combined flows during storms. After the storm,
the wastewater could be pumped to treatment plants and released
into rivers. Most cities have picked the second option.
The federal government once paid 75% to
95% of the cost of such projects, industry experts say. That
share has dropped to about 5%. The Environmental Protection
Agency estimates that the cost of clean-water improvements from
2000 to 2019 will be $388 billion more than federal money
"The federal government must re-commit to
funding," says Adam Krantz, managing director for government
affairs of the Association of Metropolitan Sewerage Agencies,
which represents 300 public agencies and other groups involved
in sewage treatment. Unless that investment takes place, he
says, water pollution may increase to levels before the Clean
Water Act took effect.
But there is little movement in Congress
to finance major clean water initiatives at a time when the
federal budget deficit is at record levels.
Many cities, already struggling from a
weak economy that has hurt their finances, say drastic increases
in utility bills could risk driving out residents and
"We need a national water policy and we
need financing for clean water," Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin
says. "Atlanta is a poster child for how badly we need that."
But some experts say the federal
government is already doing enough. "Water and sewer systems are
local services that should be paid for by the people who use
them," says Adrian Moore, executive director of the Reason
Public Policy Institute, a Los Angeles-based think tank that
promotes privatizing water and sewer systems. Charging users the
full cost of water and sewer services encourages conservation
and efficiency, he argues.
Moore says Congress could help local
governments by letting private companies issue tax-exempt bonds
for water and sewer projects. Now, only local governments can
issue such bonds.
Atlanta needs to overhaul its sewers not
just to meet federal clean water rules but to handle population
growth in Georgia's largest city and its suburbs.
Franklin is seeking financial help from
federal, state and suburban officials to ease the burden on city
residents, but they have been cool to her pleas. Gov. Sonny
Perdue has said he might ask the Legislature to help but says he
doubts the state will chip in the $500 million Franklin seeks.
Atlanta officials say that De Kalb and
Fulton counties, each of which includes parts of Atlanta, use
the city's water treatment system but haven't helped pay for
Franklin is pushing a 1-cent sales tax
increase in Fulton County. But officials in Fulton twice have
refused to put the tax on the county ballot.
Some political observers say that
Atlanta's sewer rates certainly will rise but that the huge
increase Franklin is floating is a political gambit.
"I think this is a worst-case scenario,"
says William Boone, a political science professor at Clark
Atlanta University. "You're just now beginning to attract people
back to the city who can afford to expand the tax base in a
positive way. So (Franklin) can't be thinking about increasing
utility fees in a way that would frighten people away."
But Franklin rarely bluffs. She already
has balanced the budget by hiking taxes and laying off city
Franklin says she will pursue
alternatives to the large fee hikes and appeal to the EPA on the
grounds that the costs will make her city unaffordable for many
The goal for Atlanta and hundreds of
other cities and counties is how to keep more pollution from
flooding into rivers, streams, lakes and bays.
Says Samons of the Providence system: "I
think we're at a real turning point in terms of how we're going
to set the priorities and how we're going to fund them."
Contributing: Dennis Cauchon in Granville, Ohio.