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Geneva Resident Asks for a Fairer Way to Charge for Sewer Service

A Fourth Street resident says his sewage bill increased in 2012 by almost $600 for water that went into the ground and not into Geneva's sewer system.

It's February and still a long way from summer watering season, but one Geneva resident is questioning why the city of Geneva charges a sewer fee for water that goes into the ground.

That's an issue city officials have been grappling with for some time and hope will be resolved via a new billing system scheduled to go on line in May.

Sewer bills generally are based on the amount of water a resident uses, as measured by a meter. The idea is that the amount of water a resident or business uses is the same as the amount that goes into the sewer system. 

But John Rittenhouse, a resident of Fourth Street, says that's not fair or accurate. Last spring, Rittenhouse and his wife invested in a new sprinkling system and found to his dismay that his sewage bill increased in 2012 by almost $600.

"At the time of the installation, my plumber asked if he could file with the city for a reverse meter to put on my water line that is used to support the sprinkling systems," he said. "Needless to say, Geneva does not offer such a program."

Ritttenhouse says reverse meters track the amount of water that is used for outdoor use, which then can be subtracted from the total water to more accurately calculate the user's sewage volume.  

"From what I understand, there are several communities throughout Chicago that have adopted such a program recognizing there should not be a charge for sewage for water used outdoors that does not (go into) our sewer system," Rittenhouse said.

"Can you imagine if you multiplied this by all the Geneva residents whouse water for their property that doesn't enter the sewage system?" he said.

Geneva Mayor Kevin Burns told Rittenhouse via e-mail last summer that adding an irrigation meter to every home in Geneva is cost prohibitive and the city does not have the staffing to maintain such a program.

That said, "the council will be considering implementing a summer cap on sewer charges based on a nine-month average once the city's new billing system is up and running," Burns said. So that topic could be coming up for debate in City Hall.

And that's all that Rittenhouse is looking for.

"At the very least, let's start the discussion or fact finding," he said.

The city conducted an extensive water-rate study in May 2012 in hopes of establishing a rate structure that would compensate for the fluctuation in water use each year. When there's a drought and consumption is high, the city has enough revenue to maintain the system. But when there's a lot of rainfall and consumption is low, there's not enough revenue to support infrastracture improvements and maintenance.

In June, the city approved a 5 percent water-rate increase and 6 percent sewer-rate increase.

Jim McNamara February 15, 2013 at 02:32 PM
The monthly sewer charge formula amounts to an unnecessary and unreasonably high charge every month. If you haven’t looked closely at your city water bill, you’ll see that sewer charge is variable - it adds about 65% of what you are charged for water with no cap. If your winter monthly water use amounts to $50, your sewer charge will add about $33. If you water your lawn and garden during the summer and your water bill is considerably higher, then a $150 water use will add about a $90 sewer charge. A $300 water use – add $210 for sewer. A $400 water use – add $270 for sewer. Maintaining a lawn, trees and gardens amounts to a penalty on residents for their increased summer water use, yet it adds little, if any, additional use on the sewer system. When I questioned the rationale for this some years ago, the response was “well that’s just how it has always been done.” That explanation did not convince me of either the necessity or the reasonableness of this type of rate scheme. When a water rate increase is proposed, an increase of 6% will actually amount to an increase to your bill of almost 10% due to the sewer rate multiplier (60-65%) being applied to the water use - even before an increased sewer rate! This seems unnecessary especially since $15-20 per month sewer charges are not uncommon in other areas. I’d be interested in hearing why Geneva residents should have to live with this type of insidious rate schedule.
Patrick Sennett February 15, 2013 at 02:39 PM
I had this same issue a couple of years back, which is why I stopped watering my lawn every other day during dry times. The lawn looks like a straw mat now, but I save a few hundred $ in water and the same in sewer.
Tom Brown February 15, 2013 at 03:45 PM
Consider this.... If there is a lower outdoor water fee, separate meter or 9-month based rate cap, the sewer maintenance cost will not go down. The bill still has to be paid. That means, the indoor water bill will have to be increased. There's no free lunch here. Is it better to leave it alone and just know you're paying through the nose for the privilege of watering your lawn during a summer drought?
Jim Radecki February 15, 2013 at 04:41 PM
There is no such thing as a free lunch but why should Mr Rittenhouse pay for half of someone elses lunch? Because he has made an investment to keep his property in good condition which we all benefit from? The goal should be to establish the most accurate rate payer structure which we currently do not have.
Dan February 15, 2013 at 05:00 PM
I rec'd the same answer, a second meter is the only solution and cost prohibitive. Hmm, turns out that wasn't the only answer, a simple math fix in a software update and done. Suddenly its doable and cost effective? Seems to me our officials didn't want to take the time to research our complaints. Tom - the money will be spent if they have it - but if its not there, they'll have to cut staff. I don't agree its all fixed cost - but I do believe any govt service will spend all the money they get, water departments included. Mayor Burns didn't offer that there was a cheap math fix to do what's right - but punted saying it would cost something for a meter, so we can't do what's right. Irrigation adds jobs for those who install, fix and maintain systems - if that makes you feel any better about the "privileged".
Tom Brown February 15, 2013 at 05:51 PM
Dan, Jim: I certainly agree that doing a math/software change is a cheaper and better solution to the "problem" than additional meters for outside water. There are other communities who use the (fairest) dual-meter system. Kevin obviously was aware of dual meters but wasn't aware of this math method when he spoke. Also, when he spoke, there was only one guy complaining about it...Now, it's a movement! All I'm saying is that if a cap on sewer maintenance cost causes a shortfall in revenue, the cost of indoor water will need to be raised. Obvious? I suppose laying people off is another option...Hmmm... The sewer system includes storm drains and all the rebuilding under the older streets that's been going on. Everyone needs to share in that... ...I don't have kids, but I pay A LOT for the education of Geneva children. It's a community. I don't complain that I should pay less because of a personal lack of kids. I'm paying "their share"...It's OK. The current extra cost for outdoor water discourages excessive use during drought months....or would, if more people were aware of it. Maybe put in this fairer 9-month cap but surcharge for water during a real drought to encourage conservation when supply is low? Even that will only help if the public is aware that water is costing them more during droughts. Most of us just pay the bill and get on with life, an awareness campaign might be good during severe drought.
jennifer Rittenhouse February 15, 2013 at 08:34 PM
Tom, I guess the way I look at it is that there are a lot of things we are charged based on consumption (i.e. water, sewer, electricity, gas, property taxes etc). The more we use, the larger the property, the more we pay. We know this going in, we have a choice. But we all make decisions based on knowing our options. What I question is why should people pay a fee for something they are not using without any viable options. Even if the city wanted to charge $500 for a one time install for a meter & charge an extra fee to read the meter, these are choices a consumer now can make. To say nothing is a free lunch is a cop out and to pay the bill and move on with life? Wow, what a solution. I send my children to a private school, my wife and I make that conscious decision, I don't ask for a rebate on my taxes because 70% goes to district 304, I like you, agree on that one, but we have a choice. We don't have a choice when it comes to this issue. This is the way it has always been doesn't fly with me. We live in a wonderful community, with the resources and people we have, I have to believe there are logical solutions to this issue. I am confident we will soon find that out. John R.
Jim Radecki February 15, 2013 at 08:45 PM
Tom, the issue is not new and has been debated at some length in the past including solutions that do not require dual meters. Your comparison to not having children in the school district has a major flaw. You pay for CUSD 304 with taxes. Your choice is pay them or move somewhere else. The water utility belongs to the rate payers. If there is an excessive cash suplus (and it has come close in past) the City Council is obligated to consider refunding it to the rate payers. Big difference. Your comments about discouraging people from watering their lawns may be laudable from a conservationist standpoint but economically it would just result in a higher rate to those who can least afford it. Usage goes down and rate goes up. The goal should be to spread the unhappiness evenly among the stakeholders based on actual usage and that is not happening.
Lance Scotts February 15, 2013 at 11:54 PM
Why don't you just disconnect your sew line and let all the water flush into your yard. This way you can water the lawn and save on sew cost!!!! Water or not to water, sounds like a choice to me or in this case over water.
Scott Lang February 16, 2013 at 03:37 AM
I'm more outraged by the bogus $25 annual fee for having a sprinkler system. Do I really need two or three reminder letters to get my backflow checked?
Tom Brown February 16, 2013 at 12:18 PM
Jim: Death, Taxes and Water Bills will exist wherever I'd move. Jen: We know this going in? We have a choice? John R. knew going in and had a choice. The city has been charging the same way for water for years before he decided to install a sprinkler. He chose to install a sprinkler and use more water on his yard. Now, though, he gets a break no one has had before. Beginning this summer, the city is providing a clever and simple "viable option". That option is that the sewer consumption will soon be based on the non-watering season. When John R. waters his lawn, he'll get a nice break. That starts next year. No extra meters required. It's simple and it's a lot fairer than before to guys like John. The actual cost of running the sewage treatment system has a lot more to do with how many people use toilets, how much detergent and if you have a disposal in your sink. It's not really just the water. It's also the "stuff in the water". That's really hard to measure. Keep it simple. I think this is a very good answer to John R's dilemma. City doesn't want extra meters to monitor and more city overhead for the sake of satisfying one class of residents' vague sense of "accuracy". It's not just about gallons anyway. Gallons are just a way of meting out the costs to everyone. I think John R. should give this new deal a try.
Mr Wolf February 17, 2013 at 01:15 PM
Why did the city just leave a note on my back door that they want to replace my water meter if they do not have any money for meters?
Katherine Filkins February 18, 2013 at 05:25 PM
Our water and sewer bill doubled, and all we did was water the plants. Not a bit of lawn was watered. Our renter had her rates double and was told that it was because of "summer rates," and she does not pay the watering part of the bill. Guess those showers really doubled the cost.
Tom Brown February 18, 2013 at 07:32 PM
Ya know....I just got my city bill and it was DOUBLE this month over last month. I expect this from Nigas, but not from the city. What the heck is going on? I'm going to study it tonight. I think it's the electric, but I see no reason for higher electric this month. Hmmm....

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