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Utility might cut sprinkler surcharge

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Center Grove area and Bargersville residents could have their water bills slashed this spring if a study by the utility shows that it can afford to cut rates and eliminate certain fees. Among the fees the town utility will consider eliminating is a $10.21-per-month charge for customers who have sprinkler systems for their yards and landscaping.

Complaints have come from Bargersville Water Utility customers, including residents and businesses in the town and the Center Grove area, about the fee for built-in sprinklers and the utility’s overall rate, which increased 77 percent in 2010 to pay for construction of a new water treatment plant, town manager Kevin McGinnis said.

The sprinkler fees have remained even though the new water plant can handle the customers it has, and the town’s water rates are too high, he said. The sprinkler fee is among the costs he hopes to cut, he said.

“We’ve heard some citizens that want to voice their opinion, and we don’t disagree with them,” McGinnis said.

“I have a sprinkler system. I pay that stupid facilities charge, too.”

The town plans to study the water utility’s costs over the next two months with a goal of figuring out how much it can afford to cut water rates for its approximately 13,500 customers in Bargersville and White River Township.

An accounting firm will look at the new water treatment plant’s costs, such as for chemicals that remove iron from the water, and salaries and other operating expenses for the whole water system.

The firm will check if the water utility can be more efficient in its spending and whether current fees are higher than they need to be, McGinnis said.

The town plans to hire the accounting firm within the next few weeks. He is awaiting project proposals from accounting firms with experience working with utilities, and the study should take up to two months after one is hired.

John Jefferson, who lives in White River Township, spent $5,000 to install his yard sprinklers in 1998 but hasn’t used them for the past four years because of the extra fees the utility charges.

He no longer pays the added costs because he disconnected his sprinklers, but he’s frustrated that his calls to town council members, state legislators and the town manager haven’t gotten rid of the $10.21 monthly fee, not even during the winter when residents aren’t watering grass.

The irrigation fees, which are charged to all customers with a yard sprinkler system, date back at least to 1995, and McGinnis believes the charge was approved to discourage residents from using sprinklers at a time when the amount of water customers used strained the town’s one water treatment plant, he said.

Since then, the town built a second water treatment plant, which has been in use since early last year.

Bargersville needed the new water plant to be in service at least one year to study how much it costs to run, and officials wanted to pay for one rate study this year that looks at the sprinkler fees and the total cost of running the plant, town council member Rowana Umbarger said.

The study will cost about $30,000 and be paid for by the water utility.

The study should show that some fees, such as the monthly charge for sprinkler systems, are unnecessary, McGinnis said.

Water rates can’t change immediately because the town has to follow state law and have the study done, conduct a public hearing and change town rules first, he said, adding he hopes rates can be reduced by early April.

“The purpose of this water rate study is to find ways to lower the rates,” he said.

“Frankly, I want them to tell me our water rates are too high. I think with the community pushback, my goal and the council’s goal is to lower the rates.”

When the rates change, the town will begin sending itemized water bills, which is a reasonable request customers, including Jefferson, have made, McGinnis said.

Jefferson said his requests have been dodged too long for him to be confident the town will make rate reductions after March.

“I think they’re buying time and stonewalling,” he said.

Since only Bargersville residents can vote for members of the town council, who oversee the water utility, water customers in White River Township, such as himself, can’t push for change through voting, Jefferson said.

He has argued to get the sprinkler system fee eliminated and thinks more residents would, too, if they knew about it.

He waters his yard with a hose now and thinks the hose uses more water than a sprinkler system that runs on a timer.

He called the sprinkler fee a year-round penalty for owning a system that is a more efficient way to water a yard.

“You pay for every drop of water that comes through that meter, whether you put it on your yard or flush it down your toilet,” Jefferson said.

“There are some things that aren’t fair, and (the fee) is one of them.”

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