Berlin Needs New Utility Rate Approach
Utility rates are again in the news in Berlin, and everybody is facing higher monthly fees that will be the same for every account, no matter how much water and electricity you use. It might seem like everybody paying the same is fair, but think again.
Capital fees and similar fixed charges burden those that conserve and those with limited economic means more heavily than others. And I suspect that, in the long term, they are a band-aid that will not heal the underlying conditions, which mostly stem from growth and environment.
We’ve been leaning into flat fees for a while, especially with water and sewer. And think about the stormwater utility, another fixed fee effort.
The results don’t seem optimal. Maybe it’s time to think about changing our approach.
Everybody’s use of utilities is not the same. It has always bothered me that a Berlin widower or a thrifty single mom that uses 1500 gallons of water a month gets a bill that is nearly the same as that of somebody that uses much more.
My own bill is an example. In June the old meter out front said that I used 1,000 gallons of water. In July it registered 4,000 gallons. But my bill was almost the same both months because the structure of our utility rates makes the cost of using water trivial. The 3,000 extra gallons cost only $1.30, plus $5.10 for sewer. That’s less than a cheeseburger.
Is the lesson that I might as well let the toilet run? It could be years before it wastes enough water that it costs as much as a new valve. And I might be dead before it’s as expensive as calling a plumber to do the job.
Look at dollars per gallon: In June I paid 7.8¢ per gallon for water and wastewater. But in July, when I used four times as much, I paid only 2.1¢, even though the town pumped and distributed all that extra water and I sent four times more down the tubes to the wastewater treatment plants.
Starting in September, The Dispatch reports, fixed monthly water and sewer fees will go up another $19.50, and a bit more for businesses. Had the fees begun in June, my bill then would have been 9.7¢/gal (+1.9¢) for 1,000 gallons, and 2.6¢/gal (+0.5¢) for 4,000 gallons in July.
Okay, okay, it’s a lot of nitpicky numbers, but the bottom line is that the new fees make it even “cheaper” to blow through more water.
Trash is the same story. The guy that throws out a lot of trash has a utility bill that looks the same as the little old lady that barely puts anything on the curb. And recycling households get no benefit but personal satisfaction even though they save the Town money. In fact, Berlin’s recyclers are arguably subsidizing the people that don’t bother.
The electric utility’s lower customer charges and fairly flat rates per kilowatt hour are simpler, and somewhat less regressive, but as the Dispatch also reported last week, our electric infrastructure is groaning under the weight of increased demand and associated costs (and maybe a new normal of hotter summers). Despite this, Berlin’s rate structure does little to moderate use.
Before going further, let me appreciate a few good things: I love the Town’s new electronic billing. Water meters that are more accurate are a needed step forward. We made a brave decision to dispose of sewage in a better way, and operating our own electric utility is a point of pride for the whole Town.
But maybe it’s time that we took a look at structuring rates with a stronger principle of “user pays”. That is, make our utility bills more closely reflect our individual use.
Put out more trash? Pay more for it to be hauled away. Is that guy’s old air conditioner set on 65 degrees making the transformer wobble? He might pay a little more for the extra kilowatt hours. And your use of water should be the primary determinant of your bill, rather than fixed charges that disproportionately burden the economically disadvantaged and discourage being environmentally conscious.
Here are a few approaches that might be worth considering:
First, rather than collecting such a large proportion of water and sewer utility costs through flat fees, these could be (mostly) folded into the usage portion of the bill. Benefits of doing this include more fairness.
Second, and in parallel, we could consider tiered rates for water and electric. This means that your first 500 kwh of electricity or 2000 gallons of water come cheaper than the next, with the rate increasing in steps as you use more. Tiered rates incentivize conservation and shift the cost toward those whose heavier use strains existing facilities and are one driver of the need for more (expensive) infrastructure.
Third, the town could do the same for solid waste. Toss more, pay more.
There’s no line item in my utility bill for trash collection, but maybe there should be. It’s not like we aren’t paying for it. Some other places do this with differently-sized trash bins with different monthly rates.
Fourth and finally, earlier this year the Mayor noted how few people recycle in Town. He said that this means that Berlin pays the County more than it has to for solid waste disposal. Carrots are better than sticks, and the decision to recycle probably should remain a personal one.
So instead of mandating recycling, which is one possibility, perhaps a modest economic incentive could be created, which could be a win-win for the Town and its residents. You don’t have to hug trees to support this:
Saving the Town money reduces pressure to increase taxes (and utility rates).
I’m not arguing for or against any of the recent new fees per se.
Instead, what I’m suggesting is that Berlin think about how it structures utility rates and perhaps move towards a new way that places greater emphasis on personal (and business) responsibility.
Shocked By Lack Of Help
What’s happened to the boaters’ creed, leave no one stranded in the water.
On Sunday, August 21, 2022, while boating off the coastline of Assateague Island (bayside) our boat’s propeller detached from the boat. My son jumped in to try to locate it. He is a good swimmer but the tide kept pushing him further and further from the boat. He tried to swim back but became exhausted and said he couldn’t make it. We were helpless. We couldn’t rescue our son. We started screaming and waving our hands, yelling for “Help.”. A nearby jet ski tour operator went over to my son but made no effort to rescue him from the water. The operator came back to our boat and said something you never thought any boater would say, which was I can’t help him, I’m not allowed.
We have been boating in the Assawoman Bay for over 20 years and would never dream of not helping someone in distress. We begged the jet ski operator to at least take a life jacket to him, which he did, and then he left. We were in shock and disbelief that he would just leave. There was another boat closeby and we got their attention. Those Good Samaritans pulled their anchor and rescued our son. He was in bad shape when he got to the boat but has made a full recovery. We were very lucky. My concern is, are these jet ski operators trained and skilled to conduct emergency rescue scenarios? More importantly, since they are always out and about, they are often in the perfect position should something like this happen.
I am still stunned that someone would say that they aren’t allowed to rescue someone. I hope this article will reaffirm the necessity for all boaters to assist and rescue anyone that is struggling in the water. We have personally reached out to several outfitters and asked them to go over their emergency rescue procedures with all their staff. I hope they do.
John and Diane Jones
Successful Book Sale Recap
The weekend of July 22-25 was one of the best yet Book Sale held at the Ocean Pines Library and run by The Friends of the Ocean Pines Library (FOPL). Over Friday evening, Saturday and Monday, approximately 20,000 books, DVD’s, Audio Books and CDs were offered for sale with all proceeds benefitting the Ocean Pines Library. The proceeds are used by the library to buy equipment, sponsor programs, offer classes and provide items not covered by the Worcester County Commissioners.
In addition, this year we added a “Specials Room Book Store” that showcased and offered for sale rare, signed, vintage, first edition, small press, collectible, odd and special interest books.
This year was the 21st Annual Book Sale and was put together by 105 volunteers and nearly 450 hours to make the sale possible. Throughout the year, books, CD’s, audio books and DVD’s are donated by patrons and then sorted and made ready for sale. This year the Book Sale was attended by over 1400 people and raised approximately $10,000.
On behalf of the FOPL and the Ocean Pines Library, we would like to thank all the volunteers who made the sale possible and who assist with library activities during the year, the charitable folks who donate books throughout the year, the staff of the library who are so patient with our activities, and to all of you who came out to support the sale. Donations of clean, slightly used or new items are now being accepted. Hope to see you all next year. If you would like to volunteer for the 2023 sales, please contact the Ocean Pines Library and leave your name, address, phone number and email address.
Jim Meckley & Eileen Leonhart
Book Sale Co-Chairs