Communities United For Action and our partners at the Sierra Club and League of Women Voters are forming a Fair Sewer Rates Coalition to work for equity and fairness in our sewer rate structure.
Why are sewer rates unfair?
Hamilton County and the City of Cincinnati are under a Consent Decree to improve our obsolete Combined Sewers that spew 8 billion gallons per year of untreated sewage and stormwater into our waterways. The Consent Decree sewer fixes, estimated to cost about $4 billion, are largely funded through sewer rates and bonds.
Currently, the Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati (MSD) has an archaic rate structure based on water usage instead of the actual burden on our combined sewers. 65% of the wastewater MSD currently treats is stormwater runoff. Stormwater runoff is what overwhelms combined sewers, causing overflows into our waterways and basement backups that continue to plague residents all over Hamilton County. So, it doesn't make sense to charge the bulk of the sewer rate based on water usage, which isn't the cause of overflows. We should be funding our sewer improvements equitably, in a way that reflects actual burden on our sewers. We need a rate structure that incentivizes controlling stormwater runoff as we deal with the impacts of climate change and increasingly severe rain events.
Exacerbating the problem with inequitable rates, big users automatically get a 20% discount, costing residential ratepayers an estimated $17 million per year. So, the majority of ratepayers are further subsidizing big users, while we fail to implement assistance programs for the ratepayers in actual need, like low-income homeowners and renters, seniors, persons with disabilities and those experiencing temporary hardships. The subsidy for bulk users comes in the form of a base rate structure (roughly $40/mo) that systematically results in overcharging nearly a quarter of all users.
Campaign Goals and Status
Cincinnati has a big problem. By design stormwater routinely overwhelms the sanitary sewer system and sewage is discharged into public spaces, private properties, streams, rivers and basement back-ups. Flooding is another result. These discharges are illegal under the Clean Water Act. The city/county is being forced to fix the problem by a federal court order (“consent decree”) at a cost of $4 billion.
- MSD claims controlling stormwater is not their job. They expanded into the suburbs and focused on sanitary sewers for developers.
- The city runs MSD; the county controls its funding. The repairs dictated by the consent decree are being funded by a charge on our water bills based on our water usage (which has nothing to do with stormwater management costs). Residential rate-payers are subsidizing the big water users by virtue of 1) a high minimum charge (sewer charges based on more water than they actually use) and 2) a 20% discount for large water users (commercial, industrial and institutional). The single-family residence minimum charge, about $40 per month, is among the highest in the country. Some cities have no minimum charge at all.
- The County has refused to fix this problem. Compared to a fair, revenue neutral alternate rate structure – still based on water usage – with a much smaller minimum charge ($8 vs. $40) and no discounts, 90% of single-family residential accounts at present are being overcharged, some more than double or triple.
- The county commissioned a Rate Affordability Task Force (RATF) in 2015 to look into sewer charges. This task force in which the residents of Cincinnati were not proportionally represented, announced at the outset they would not address the rate structure and recommended some other minor changes. Since then the county has kept the sewer charges unchanged (i.e., same levels of subsidy). It is clear the County Commissioners, are not putting the people first.
- As other cities have done, the costs of upgrading stormwater infrastructure should be covered by fees that reflect the required capacity for stormwater removal from properties, which is related to property area and nature of surface. Such a fee would substantially reduce the sewer charges on small properties.
- Some cities have stormwater fees that, like our water-based charges, are regressive: treating large and small residential properties almost the same. For example, Cincinnati has a small monthly stormwater fee (not contributing to the consent decree costs) that charges:
- Class A: One and two family residential properties, 10,000 square feet or less in land area (approximately 0.23 acres), pay $8.28 monthly.
- Class B: One and two family residential properties, 10,001 square feet or more in land area, pay $11.59 monthly.
So a family with less than ¼ acre pays $8.28 and a family with 2 acres (eight times as much land) pays $11.59.
- A fair stormwater fee would reflect how much run-off occurs under sustained storm conditions when even pervious surfaces like lawns and gardens or undeveloped areas become saturated with water. Total property area would be a starting point for such a charge. Furthermore, like other cities, MSD should incentivize property improvements that reduce stormwater peak flows, of which there are many options including drainage to streams, getting streams out of sewer pipes (“daylighting”), making ponds, bioswales and rain gardens.
- Now a new task force has been created: Impervious Surface Task Force (IPSTF), and a consulting company that is expert in stormwater management has been hired. As in the previous task force, the people of Cincinnati are powerless. One challenge is to craft a regional stormwater plan with a common fee structure across townships and municipalities. This would require some commitment and political courage. Unfortunately the county did not require that pervious surface areas be included in the stormwater run-off calculations and now it appears that MSD is even resisting minimal recommendations from IPSTF.
- The sewer problem in Cincinnati requires a political solution coming from the top leadership in the city and county. This has not happened and will not happen until sufficiently intense pressure boils up from below to make “our” elected officials want to do the right thing. This is the goal of the Fair Sewer Rates Coalition. Our immediate objectives are to expand the coalition with new organizations endorsing this effort and build our outreach effort to inform all the people about storm water politics and solutions.
Organizations, community groups and businesses can sign on below to support the following recommendations.
We are recommending the Hamilton County Commissioners, as the rate-setting authority for the MSD, make the following changes to our sewer rate structure:
- Reduce base rate charges immediately;
- Eliminate the bulk rate discounts for large users that creates a disincentive to water conservation;
- Fund the Consent Decree with impervious surface charges and other stormwater-related fees;
- Implement financial incentives for stormwater abatement for all property owners; and
- Work to expand Customer Assistance programs for those in need.