Water rate hikes fuel complaints

A water rate hike that disproportionately impacts businesses is also taking a heavy toll on church groups, Girl Scouts and battered women.

So said a host of angry water customers who confronted the Clark County Commission on Tuesday over the new infrastructure surcharge that began showing up on bills last month.

Representatives from the Shade Tree shelter for women and children, the Girl Scouts of Southern Nevada and several valley churches spoke out against the new fee. They were joined by business owners, homeowner association managers and cash-strapped seniors.

Some people said their monthly water bill more than doubled because of the new flat fee, which is based on the size of the water lines serving each property, not on water consumption.

Commercial customers are hardest hit because the surcharge also applies to large but little-used water lines that feed hydrants and fire sprinkler systems.

“When the bill arrived last month, I nearly fell out of my chair,” said Marlene Richter, executive director of the Shade Tree.

She knew a rate hike was coming, but she expected the shelter’s charges to go up by $5 a month or so, about the same as the average single-family home. Instead, they have doubled to around $12,000 a year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to absorb that while we are filled to capacity with homeless and abused women and children,” Richter said. “I can’t pass the charges along to my customers.”

The Southern Nevada Water Authority created the infrastructure surcharge in early March, and it was quickly adopted by the wholesale water agency’s member utilities despite opposition from the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce and others. The Las Vegas Valley Water District board – better known as the Clark County Commission – gave its unanimous approval on March 6.

The outcry began as soon as the new fees showed up on bills in May.

“We knew this would happen once the water rates started to hit,” chamber spokeswoman Cara Roberts said. “This is what we were talking about in January and February. It’s hitting businesses hard.”

Gordon Marx works for a company that installs fire systems and serves as chairman of the American Fire Sprinkler Association’s Southern Nevada chapter.

He said the chapter’s members have logged more than a thousand calls from business owners since the new fee went into effect. They all want to know the same thing, he said: “How do I take out my sprinkler system? How do I take out my hydrants? I don’t want them. I don’t use them. I’m certainly not going to pay for them.”

But Marx said they’re stuck. State and local regulations require fire sprinklers and hydrants, so the choice is keep them or close up shop, he said.

“They’re getting screwed into paying for something they never use,” he said.

Dan Laliberte helps run a commercial property management company with some 800 small-business clients. He said the water authority can expect to see some local businesses close because of its rate hike. If it doesn’t happen now, it surely will in a year or so when businesses get hit with higher annual assessments from landlords with no choice but to pass the surcharge on to their tenants.

“It feels like an attack on them,” Laliberte said of small-business owners. “This is just going to crush our economy even more.”

Then there are those who aren’t in it for a profit.

Matt Frady of the Girl Scouts of Southern Nevada said the new fee will cost the organization about $10,000 annually – money that would be used to subsidize the memberships of 700 girls.

“You folks might have to help us out by buying a lot of cookies,” Frady told the commissioners.

Pastor Kevin Apperson said his North Las Vegas Baptist Church saw its monthly water bill jump from about $400 to $1,300. That is a huge hit for a 100-member congregation, some of whom depend on help from the church to pay their own utility bills.

Apperson said he knows the water authority is between a rock and a hard place. “We just ask that the rock is not used to crush our church and small businesses represented here today.”

Many of those who addressed the commissioners came with bills in hand. Several people said they had answered the call to conserve water and now felt like they were being punished for it.

No action was taken at Tuesday’s meeting, but water district chief Pat Mulroy said her agency would work with individuals who are struggling to pay the new fee.

“We’re not callous,” she said.

District spokesman Scott Huntley said the utility separates its customers into one of two categories, residential and nonresidential. It does not differentiate between businesses or churches, resorts or women’s shelters.

“We don’t have special rates for nonprofits,” Huntley said. “If they’ve got a fire meter, I’m sure they’re upset with the increase, no question about it.”

Mulroy, who also serves as general manager for the water authority, said the new infrastructure surcharge is necessary to pay down roughly $2.5 billion in construction debt and finish funding an $800 million intake being built to keep water flowing to the valley even if Lake Mead continues to shrink.

Such projects used to be funded with the spoils of growth, namely connection charges paid by new homes and commercial buildings. When growth stopped, so did the water authority’s primary source of construction money.

Mulroy said the $2.5 billion in debt her agency racked up paid for the water infrastructure that allowed the community to grow from about 800,000 residents to almost 2 million today.

“We’re refinancing at every opportunity to flatten the impact,” she said. “But at the end of the day, it has to be paid.”

Contact reporter Henry Brean at hbrean@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0350.

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