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Customers flood Water District meeting with complaints about new rates

Updated Tuesday, June 5, 2012 | 4:25 p.m.

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Jim Meservey, a principal of Storage One, points to the total of his current monthly water bills after surcharges Wednesday, May 30, 2012. The figure at left was the total bill for the prior month without the surcharge. Although the business is a low water consumer, the company has seen its water bills double or triple depending on the size of the water meters. In 2016, the surcharges are scheduled to double, he said.

Water customers lambasted the Las Vegas Valley Water District for, as one man put it, “running amok” and changing the system to the point that some water bills increased by 300 percent in May.

Nearly 30 people spoke Tuesday morning at the meeting of the Water District, including Gordon Marx of the Nevada Fire Sprinkler Contractors Association, who said he knew of 1,000 people who could lose their jobs because their employer might have to choose keeping the employee or paying a higher water bill.

Many of the complaints came from small-business owners now paying a surcharge for fire lines, which provide more water pressure in case of a fire but are rarely used. Businesses previously never had to pay for those lines.

Pat Mulroy, the Water District's general manager, responded that the “growth machine” that shouldered two decades of water expenses has ended.

“We’ve taken water for granted, and the machine that paid for everything has all but disappeared,” she said.

The Water District meeting, which normally lasts for 15 minutes, stretched for nearly two hours. Speaker after speaker decried the May water bills. In February, the Southern Nevada Water Authority board –- which provides water to seven individual water districts in Southern Nevada –- voted to add surcharges to water bills. The Water Authority needs money since connection fees, which had peaked at $188 million in 2005-06, fell to about $11 million last year.

Third Straw Construction

A rig of explosives is lifted by a crane during construction of the the Southern Nevada Water Authority's Launch slideshow »

Meanwhile, the Water Authority is shouldering a $3.3 billion debt, much of it due to a third intake pipeline being built deep into Lake Mead. The pipeline is considered insurance as a decade-long drought tightens its grip on the Southwest.

To deal with the Water Authority's drop in revenue, consultants Hobbs & Ong came up with three models, including one to increase water rates in a tiered “pay-as-you-go” manner – the more used, the more paid. The model that gained approval, though, was to put place flat rates on homes and businesses based on the size of the pipe serving that property. Smaller pipes pay less.

Fire lines, which had never cost a business before, can be much larger than, say, an average home’s ¾-inch pipe. So costs for those lines were much higher under the new structure.

The new rate system is to remain in place three years, after which revenues will be examined to see if another surcharge increase is needed.

The 35 speakers at this morning's meeting understood the loss-of-revenue rationale; they just didn’t like how the new charges were spread among water customers.

Dan Laliberte said the new surcharge appears to negate water conservation residents have embraced over the past decade. The Water Authority’s budget says the average per-resident water use has fallen from .85 acre-feet per year to .45 acre-feet.

“Why are we spending money to rip out sod” when water bills still go up? Laliberte asked. “It makes no difference.”

Nonprofit organizations complained their bills went way up but they have no way to pass the cost onto customers. Places like Shade Tree, a shelter for abused women and children, don’t have paying customers.

“I don’t know how to absorb a $12,000 (annual) increase in our water bill,” said a Shade Tree representative.

Pat Mulroy

Pat Mulroy

The Water District wasn’t scheduled to come up with solutions, at least not right away. After the public spoke, the board voted to establish a five- or seven-person committee to work in concert with the Water Authority’s 21-person committee, established to look at rates to see if there is a better way to raise revenues.

The Water Authority committee will begin meeting sometime this summer. At some point, the Water District committee will look at the Water Authority’s recommendations, then figure out how to implement them in the Las Vegas Valley Water District.

Some ideas already have percolated, including one by Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak to add a water reconnection fee – similar to electricity or cable TV reconnection fees – to the price of a home when it is sold.

After the meeting, Mulroy said a problem with the idea was that about two decades ago a group of businesses sued against a similar charge. The electricity reconnection fees, they argued, is for work actually done. But that isn’t necessarily the case for this so-called water reconnection.

CORRECTION: This version corrects the spelling of Gordon Marx's name. | (June 5, 2012)

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  1. Then maybe the MORONS at the water district need to QUIT SPENDING MONEY like there was no down turn in revenue.........3rd Inlet........a WASTE of our money.....the hike in water rates was just to accommodate their FAT SALARIES and ivory towers to view their kingdom from.

  2. Oh, you're going to LOVE this; yesterday? My complex had a broken water line and our water was shut off for 12 HOURS! The notice we were given stated from "9:00-4:00", that was posted on Saturday. Now my complex has residents demanding free rent because the water company, who probably forgot about us, forced some of the residents (no doubt) to bathe in the swimming pools because they work the graveyard shift, due to NO running water in the units!

    Thank you SO much SNWA!

  3. Can we think up a few more ways to kill existing small businesses? Can we come up with more reasons for business not to relocate to Nevada? Can we think up more ways to go backwards in building fire safe homes? Can you imagine builders advertising the fact that in their such and such square footage homes, 3/4" supply lines/meters were used to keep down water bills? I guess only the rich who need to be taxed more will have the 1" lines from now on.

    Obviously no one at the water district has owned or run a small business with any degree of knowledge or competency or they wouldn't slam them with thousands in new charges. It's tough enough to survive these days. The number of empty commercial spaces is outrageous as it is and now we have one more impediment to business survival and new business.

    Wonderful. What genius.

  4. Busines is such a welfare queen. They want the water they just don't want to pay for the water or infrastructure required to deliver it.

  5. I get that fire suspression systems need a 1" line but water isn't being used. So they are being charged thousands for water not being used?

  6. Nice job Pat. Open those valves and let the money flow.

  7. Water bills should be or do two things: They should encourage conservation, so we avoid the huge infrastructure costs that SNWA and company want to dump on us, and they should be fair. The existing billing structure fails on both counts.
    What it does is fund SNWA's gorgeous new digs by the Smith Center and makes sure the big industrial users don't see an increase. The little people can pay for those.

  8. The cost of willful ignorance. Six months ago both newspapers had numerous stories on this matter and, subsequently, each water district board held hearings and voted on the policy. Where were you at that time? Reading the one-eyed guy or Elfman or Kats column? Losing a hundred bucks on the slots? Watching some vastly more important big game? Ya'll bitch a lot but hardly anybody participates in decision making.