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Trickle Down: City Water Bills Flood the Poor? 

Is your city water bill too high? It is, a coalition of civic activists argues — and it's hitting the poor the hardest.

"This is a serious issue and we're not going to let it go," says King Salim Khalfani, head of the state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "Our older residents and our poorer ones, the ones who can afford it the least, are suffering."

Khalfani sent messages to City Council demanding answers for the water rates last week. He's still waiting, he says.

It's a hot issue this sweltering summer. Scott Burger, co-chairman of the local Sierra Club chapter, set up a petition at change.org last month, arguing that the water rates are unfair and discourage conservation. More than 1,200 people had signed the petition as of Monday.

So is Richmond's water expensive? Yes, compared with other localities. According to a 2011 survey of Virginia water rates, which includes incoming and outgoing wastewater, by consulting firm Draper Aden Associates, a household using 5,000 gallons a month — typical for a single-family residence – would pay $74.96 in Richmond, $48.58 in Virginia Beach, $40.90 in Chesterfield, and $49.49 in Henrico.

That means a Richmond family pays $408 more a year for water than someone living across the county line in Chesterfield.

Officials say there are reasons for that. The city needs expensive utility upgrades such as better water treatment and pipes. Those costs are why the administration requested — and got — a $2.70-per-month increase in water bills starting next year.

Bob Steidel, Richmond's director of public utilities, says the upgrades make comparisons to other localities unreasonable. "They aren't facing what we're facing," he says.

In addition, a clause in the city charter forces the utility department to make special payments to the city's general fund. These payments totaled $12.65 million for water last year, according to information supplied by the city.

Khalfani of the NAACP acknowledges the points. But that doesn't help residents on fixed incomes who must pay the bill or get their water cut off, he says.

Sanford V. Berg, an economist and director of water studies at the Public Utilities Research Center at the University of Florida, says that a rate system like Richmond's could be affecting the poor most because it's a larger proportion of their monthly income. "Fifty dollars [a month for water access] does seem high," he adds.

Berg suggests that the rate structure largely is to maintain a consistent flow of money to the utility, which would keep its loan rates low: "It's very helpful for a utility to say, 'I can predict that income.'"

Utilities director Steidel says Berg's right about that. But he says that the better bond rate helps keep the cost of improvements down. "No one wants higher rates," he adds.

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