Council seeks to understand, address water woes

Sunday Times Newspapers

RIVERVIEW – City Council members continued to listen and learn about factors influencing water rates at the council study session Oct. 3, hoping to have answers for residents when approached.

City Manager Doug Drysdale reported on a focused one-on-one effort to address specific concerns of residents shell-shocked by their quarterly water bills, with Department of Public Works Director Jeff Webb visiting at least a dozen houses in the past two weeks, looking at meters and showing residents how their meters work and how bills are calculated.

Drysdale said Webb walked through houses and yards to identify causes of elevated water consumption, including sprinkler systems, pools and gardens.

One resident even was taken for a ride to see how the meter reading equipment could get an accurate reading from two blocks away, the same reading as when the device was next to the meter, Drysdale said.
“We also had one resident that (Webb) showed them that their sprinkler system used about a thousand gallons in a 1 hour and 40 minute cycle,” Drysdale said. “The person admitted to using it three times a week. Three times a week times 12 weeks is 36,000 gallons, which comes out to over $500 added on to their water bill, and they were not aware of that.”

Drysdale said one sprinkler timer was set to go off every day instead of every other day, and Webb identified sprinkler leaks of which residents were unaware. He said seven meters were sent out for testing, and all to date were functioning accurately.

“We don’t believe there are any problems with our meters,” Drysdale said, “and the ones that we are having tested, especially from the people that are claiming that it must be wrong, their bill is too large, those (meters) have been found to be accurate.”

Souheil Sabak of C.E. Raines said the Great Lakes Water Authority checks meters twice a year, because they cannot afford to be under-billing clients for water usage. He said historically when water meters fail, they under-read to the client’s benefit.

The city also looked at the amount of water it purchased from the GLWA, Drysdale said, and found this summer’s usage significantly higher than last summer’s usage.

“We did not bill out more than what we bought from Detroit,” Drysdale said. “There is no over-billing or coming up with numbers. We do actual readings.”

Drysdale said the meter reading device used by a Department of Public Works employee when they go into someone’s home to examine or test a meter simply picks up a signal from the radio pack on the meter. That information is then taken back to the DPW and downloaded into the billing software.

“The clerk there runs a report and looks for abnormal usage, either too high or too low,” Drysdale said. “Anything that falls out like that, the DPW’s sent over to the house after-the-fact to go check for leaks, and look for not working radio reads. Those are fixed right away.”

The billing software is updated twice a year, Drysdale said, and they have manually recalculated questioned bills, and they have always matched what the software calculated.

“It’s a pretty simple thing – usage times rate,” Drysdale said. “And we’ve had no errors on that.”
Webb said it was one of the hottest and driest summers in recent history.

Drysdale said Riverview had a little over 1 inch of rain in each month for June and July, and normally those months would experience 3 to 4 inches.

Mayor Andrew Swift said most people who had problems with their water bills compared to how much it was three or four years ago don’t always know how much water they used, but they know how much money they spent, and they are not taking into account that there have been significant rate increases since 2012.

Drysdale said for some residents who had complaints, Webb was able to explain to them that while their consumption has stayed nearly the same, the rates have gone up significantly.

“Our (water) rates is the other side of the equation,” Drysdale said. “That’s gone up probably 40 to 50 percent since 2011-12, and that’s primarily because the costs to us are going up. Things like Wayne County continues to issue more debt, and that goes into our rates. That’s a fixed cost. The cost of water from Detroit has gone up every year, from an average of about 8 percent a year.”

Drysdale said when water consumption is lower, such as when an industrial client leaves the area, the fixed costs of the water system, including water main and sewer maintenance and repair, are spread among fewer people, causing the fixed cost component of every bill to increase.

Drysdale said sewage rates went up significantly from 2011-12, and sewage rate charges account for roughly half of a person’s bill.

As consumption drops, Drysdale said the fixed costs are spread over fewer gallons of water, causing unit prices to increase.

Drysdale said a big influence of the rates charged by Wayne County and GLWA is its debt, and its need to improve its infrastructure.

“They don’t have the cash on hand, so they issue bonds,” Drysdale said. “They pass those costs on to us.”
Swift said some residents wanted a separate water meter for a pool or a sprinkler system that didn’t encompass sewer rates, but that would not help the city, he said, because Wayne County bases the sewage rates on the incoming water usage from the GLWA.

“So that cost is built into there whether it goes down the drain or not,” Swift said. “We still have that cost.”

Drysdale said the GLWA draws its water from the Detroit River.

“I’m not sure anybody here would want to drink that water directly,” Drysdale said. “It takes a lot of money to get that clean and to get it to you. It’s not free.”

(Sue Suchyta can be reached at