Paradise Valley residents call into question Phoenix sewer fee assessments

Camelhead North Homeowners Association President Gary Edends with a community petition for other local residents who too have concerns about Phoenix sewer bills. (Independent Newsmedia/Terrance Thornton)

Camelhead North Homeowners Association President Gary Edens Wednesday, Jan. 20 with a community petition for other local residents who too have concerns about Phoenix sewer bills. (Independent Newsmedia/Terrance Thornton)

A group of Paradise Valley residents are crying foul over how the city of Phoenix is assessing their sewer fees — and now say they are prepared to take the issue to court.

Depending on where you live in the Town of Paradise Valley determines what entity handles the wastewater leaving your home. Paradise Valley residents have three options: Use a septic tank, use town services if within a certain geographical area, or sign up for the city of Phoenix sewer service.

The 71 homes within the Camelhead North Homeowners Association are provided sewer service by the city of Phoenix, but residents there say they are fed up with what many call “outrageous” sewer bills ranging from the hundreds of dollars to sometimes into the thousands.

“The fundamental issue is how they are supposed to be charging for sewer discharge,” said Camelhead North HOA President Gary Edens Jan. 12 at his Paradise Valley home.

“One of my neighbors had a bill that was up to $11,000 at one point. Three people in a house use the same amount of water year to year — that should go without saying. We don’t flush more often just because we live in Paradise Valley.”

Mary Ling, Phoenix Water Services management assistant, says Phoenix sewer rates are second lowest among the 20 largest cities in the nation.

“The city’s current wastewater (sewer) rate structures includes several customer classes with rates for each customer class based on the relative strength of sewage discharge,” she said in a Jan. 19 written response to e-mailed questions.

“The higher the customer’s sewage strength, the higher the rates. The strength-based volume charges are calculated to recover the cost to treat sewage. For residential customers a percentage of winter — January through March — water usage is used to estimate sewage flows and calculate monthly bills. The amount of water that goes into the sewer is generally equal to the amount of water that the customer used indoors.”

But it’s that blanket calculation that is sometimes delivering massive sewer bills to certain Paradise Valley residents, Mr. Edens contends.

“They have a secret formula,” he said. “There are people here in Paradise Valley who pay more in sewer fees than they pay in water. The problem is that it’s complex and we understand that — it just drives people crazy doing this every year.”

Mr. Edens says the FairPhxSewerFees@gmail.com e-mail has been set up for Paradise Valley residents to communicate on next steps to help find a solution to concerns around Phoenix sewer fees.

Treat all homes equally

Mr. Edens and his neighbors say using water usage as a determinate for sewer fees is not treating Paradise Valley homes equally compared to other ratepayers in neighboring Phoenix.

“Normally, water utilities meter the total amount of water that is delivered to a home, which includes both indoor and outdoor water use; sewer lines are not metered separately as this would be prohibitively expensive,” Ms. Ling said of the common issue with Paradise Valley ratepayers.

A view of Phoenix City Hall, 200 W Washington St., in downtown Phoenix. (File photo)

A view of Phoenix City Hall, 200 W Washington St., in downtown Phoenix. (File photo)

“Utilities, therefore, typically attempt to find an approximation of indoor vs. outdoor water use, so that sewer charges can be assessed based on indoor water use. It is common for utilities across the country to charge for sewer services based on a percentage of total water use that is meant to be an approximation of indoor water use.”

Gary Keltner, a resident of Camelhead North, says for the past several years he has been forced to appeal his sewer rates with the city of Phoenix in order to get them reduced to a level he feels is fair and normal.

“We are, at this time, ready to meet with a lawyer,” he said Jan. 12. “Basically, they are using water bills to determine sewer fees. I have 15 to 20 years worth of sewer appeals if you want them. We are trying to do the right thing and pay the right amount.”

Mr. Keltner provided the Independent with Phoenix sewer bills comparing month to month and year to year. Some show considerable swings in monthly charges — including a bill in June 2015 for sewer fees totaling $36.70, while his July 2015 bill showed a fee of $92.26.

In addition, Mr. Keltner says a year-to-year comparison of costs from 2014 to 2015 show charges of $25 to $164. Mr. Keltner, however, was able to negotiate with Phoenix through its appeal process. The monthly charge was eventually reduced to $24.01, records show.

Jim Ullman, another Camelhead North resident, paints a similar picture.

“For a long period of time, (the sewer fee) was a negligible amount,” he said Jan. 12. “Sometimes our sewer bill is almost the same as the entire water bill. We don’t want an arbitrary bill, you have to account for your usage. We want some continuity to this. We don’t want to be fighting this year after year.”

Mr. Ullman says he and his neighbors have had enough.

“We are not adverse to pursuing a lawsuit. This is wrong,” he said. “Talk to us instead of doing this. Part of the problem is that we are subsidizing a city with significant capital needs. We hope it doesn’t get there.”

Phoenix city officials say an average Phoenix household pays $24.68 per month.

A moving target

Phoenix City Council earlier this month approved a 3 percent increase in water rates and a 2 percent increase in sewer rates for 2016. In addition, the city council also approved a 2 percent increase for water and 2 percent increase for wastewater to impact ratepayers in calendar year 2017.

Phoenix officials say the approved 2016 and 2017 rate increases will provide infrastructure improvements, including existing pipes, treatment plants, pumps reservoirs and wells. Phoenix officials say an average sewer bill in the city of Phoenix will likely be $24.68 per month.

Ms. Ling points out all rates for Phoenix sewer customers are explicit.

“Currently, for residential customers, the city of Phoenix sewer bill includes a flow-based charge that is assessed on 85 percent of the resident’s average water consumption for the period of January, February, and March,” she explained.

“Here in Phoenix, January, February, and March are the months in which residential customers use the least amount of water for outdoor purposes, and therefore represent a good proxy for indoor water use.”

Customers outside of Phoenix pay more than the average Phoenix customer, Ms. Ling says.

“Customers outside of the political boundaries of the city of Phoenix generally pay a sewer rate that is 1.5 times the sewer rate charged within the city of Phoenix,” she said.

“Premiums for service outside of the boundaries of a municipally-owned wastewater utility are common across the country, and typically reflect the fact that customers within the city are effectively the owners of the utility, who must bear the risks and liabilities of utility ownership. If a municipality provides service to outside-city customers, it assumes some of the characteristics of an investor-owned utility, and may incur substantial risks in making this investment, including business risk such as tort liability and civil penalties, interest rate risk, financial risk and liquidity risk.”

Ms. Ling says premium charges to customers living outside of Phoenix are meant to be based on a sought-after rate of return.

“Premiums charged to outside-city customers represent a rate of return intended, in part, to recognize the inherent risk factors involved in developing infrastructure and delivering service to outside-city users,” she said.

Northeast Valley Managing Editor Terrance Thornton can be contacted at tthornton@newszap.com

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