Water bills reaching high tide in some Southland areas
BY SUSAN DEMAR LAFFERTY email@example.com July 10, 2012 5:24PM
John Frizzell holds his water bill with his wife Karen and son Jacob, 8, looking on at their home in Monee, Illinois, Friday, July 6, 2012. | Joseph P. Meier~Sun-Times Media
Updated: August 12, 2012 6:04AM
Warnings about looming water rate increases have become a norm in the Southland, but how high bills can rise depends on the supplier and a customer’s usage.
For John and Karen Frizzell, who live in a subdivision off Harlem Avenue and Monee-Manhattan Road, the answer arrived recently, and it did not trickle in. Their bill went from $109 to $411 in one month. And that was relatively low compared to one-month bills received by some of their neighbors, hit up for $453 and $524.
So is liquid gold coming out of the taps in Green Garden Township? Is there a leaking line or faulty meters?
Or is there just an exorbitant cost to keep one’s lawn green during a hot, dry summer coupled with a hefty rate increase?
While the Frizzells and their neighbors — customers of Aqua Illinois — don’t get Lake Michigan water, Southland residents who do are in for increases, too. The city of Chicago has begun a rate increase program that takes water rates from $2.01 per thousand gallons to $3.82 by 2015.
The Oak Lawn water delivery system that serves about a dozen Southland towns also is planning major improvements that will further raise costs, and a new seven-town water agency that includes Alsip, Blue Island and Midlothian plans to spend millions to get water through Whiting, Ind., in hopes it can save money over the long haul.
Oak Lawn village manager Larry Deetjen has predicted that customers will use less water as the rates rise. But as in the case in Green Garden Township, there may first be some sticker shock and some protesting about unfair increases.
‘It makes no sense’
According to the Frizzells’ most recent bill, they used 51,000 gallons of water in one month.
“It makes no sense,” John Frizzell said.
He asked his water provider, Aqua Illinois, to check his meter.
The Frizzells have in-ground sprinklers that water the lawn twice a week at their home in the Canterbury Lakes subdivision.
“They are claiming we used 1,575 gallons per day,” Karen Frizzell said. “We’re not even home during the day. Our grass is brown. Our plants are wilting. There is no way we could be using 1,575 gallons.”
Neighbor Jim Kennealy said he “almost fainted” when he saw his $453 bill.
“I was aware that an increase was coming, but not like this,” he said. “This is outrageous. This is a 200 percent increase.”
Many in the neighborhood have since stopped watering and even hesitate to flush their toilets, Frizzell said.
During one peak month last summer, Jim and Karen O’Brien used 70,000 gallons of water, and their bill for water and sewer was $173. They just received a $524 bill for using 69,000 gallons at their Bristol Lane home.
Sewer change: the double-whammy
One of the reasons for the higher bills in Green Garden Township is a rate ruling by the Illinois Commerce Commission in February that allowed Aqua Illinois to base its sewer rates on water usage rather than a flat fee of $45.
On Jim O’Brien’s latest bill — for service from mid-May to mid-June — he was charged $246.40 for 70,000 gallons of water and $245.89 for 70,000 gallons for the sewer fee.
O’Brien said he lives on an acre of land and keeps his grass green and his pool filled, but said it is not fair to be charged for the water that is not going into the sewer.
Some municipalities allow residents to rent or install meters that allow them to deduct usage charges for water that doesn’t go through the sewer, such as when filling a pool, so they have a lower sewer rate.
“They are charging us for water coming in and going out when it is not going out,” said Mike Sullivan, another resident. “They are charging us for something that doesn’t exist.”
His bill nearly tripled from last summer, he said.
But Aqua Illinois vice president of operations Craig Blanchette said sewer rates based on water volume are “more equitable.”
“People who do not water their grass or live in a one-bedroom apartment are paying their fair share,” he said. “Some people water heavily and that leads to a higher bill.”
Aqua Illinois uses surface water from the Kankakee River, Lake Vermilion, Vermilion River and groundwater from 27 wells, according to its website. Unlike Lake Michigan water systems, Aqua Illinois has not had to impose watering restrictions during this summer’s drought, Blanchette pointed out. But customers still can control their sewer costs by conserving water use, he said. Or those who like to irrigate can install a separate line and separate meter, which he estimated costs $2,000 to $3,000.
Aqua Illinois’ water rates went from $1.63 to $3.27 per 1,000 gallons, plus a monthly service charge of $20.39, up from $11.50. Sewer rates are $3.99 per 1,000 gallons for the first 7,500 gallons, and $2.99 per 1,000 gallons over that, plus a monthly service charge of $31.75, down from $45.55.
The rate increase was Aqua Illinois’ first in 15 years, Blanchette said. During that time, it made more than $10 million in infrastructure improvements to the University Park regional system, which includes Green Garden and Monee townships.
In approving the new rates, the ICC said Aqua Illinois’ previous rates were insufficient to generate the income necessary for it to earn a “fair and reasonable return.” But it did reduce the company’s request for new revenue by $1 million, ICC spokeswoman Beth Bosch said.
“A lot has been required of them by the EPA. They are entitled to recover costs for improvements,” she said.
Aqua Illinois said it sent two letters to customers about the rate increase — in April 2011, when it first sought the increase, and in February, immediately after the ICC approved the increase.
Some homeowners said they did not receive it.
Customers also noticed increases in the water customer service fee, the fire protection charge, ICC tax and city utility tax.
Blanchette said those customers living in unincorporated areas should not have been charged a city utility tax — that tax should apply only to village of University Park residents.
Challenging the increase
At least one Aqua Illinois customer — Viscofan USA, a food-casing plant in Danville — is challenging the ICC ruling, saying it is no longer economical to stay with Aqua Illinois, and it will be forced to seek another source for its water.
Bosch said the commission will consider Viscofan’s request on July 20 and vote on it Aug. 15.
“It has raised issues that could affect the rate increase,” Bosch said.
Profits are up for Aqua Illinois’ parent company, Aqua America. It reported net income of $37.9 million for the first quarter of this year, compared to $30.4 million in 2011 — an increase of 25 percent, according to its website.
In Will County, Aqua Illinois serves the village of University Park, portions of the village of Monee, Green Garden and Monee townships, and parts of northeast Crete Township and other unincorporated areas in the northeastern section of the county.
“People are really upset,” said Crete Township Supervisor Gerald Curran, who said he fielded “many, many, many calls” from residents when water bills arrived in the mail.
“It costs $10 to take a shower,” he said.
The township is not involved in water and sewer services, but Curran advised his constituents to petition the ICC or “put a port-a-potty in their driveway.”
“All I can do is say a couple of prayers,” he said.