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WASA: City charging D.C. taxpayers twice

(Published July 31, 2000)

By KATHRYN SINZINGER

Staff Writer

Officials at the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority are refusing to pay new fees imposed on utility companies for making street cuts, contending that city taxpayers are being charged twice for making street repairs for which WASA already pays.

And there further seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding by both the D.C. City Council and Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ administration of what they did when they included the government agency along with privately owned utility companies in legislation and regulations implementing the charges, WASA says.

The new fees — imposed to recoup street repair costs on companies whose utility lines occupy public space, which must be dug up when line repairs are made – are meant to apply to the owners of the utility lines.

But D.C. taxpayers, not WASA, own the more than 3,000 miles of water and sewer lines that the water and sewer authority maintains.

"It does not make sense to make WASA pay to the District a rental fee for facilities owned by the District in the District’s right-of-way, particularly when District of Columbia residents will bear the ultimate costs," WASA General Counsel Henderson J. Brown wrote in a July 12 letter to the city’s congressional overseers. A WASA spokeswoman said similar letters also were sent to Mayor Williams and council Chairman Linda Cropp, but she said WASA has received no official response.

WASA board chairman Ron M. Linton warned that D.C. residents, who already are being hit with an approximate 40 percent rate increase over a 10-year period to pay for long-neglected infrastructure improvements, will be forced to swallow an additional 10-13 percent rate increase during the next fiscal year if his agency is required to pay the street-cut fees.

Water and sewer rates in the District went up 4.8 percent in April and the agency’s board already has approved another 4.9 percent increase that goes into effect in April 2001 as part of the long-term improvement project. The estimated additional rate hike would mean D.C. residents could see their water and sewer rates increase nearly 18 percent in the next year.

WASA was created in 1996 to run the city’s troubled water and sewer system, which previously was under the purview of the D.C. Department of Public Works. The agency serves approximately 130,000 residential and commercial customers in the District, as well as Reagan National Airport and the Pentagon. It also operates the Blue Plains wastewater treatment plant in Southwest Washington, which serves the District, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in Maryland, and Fairfax County in Virginia. Five of the 11 WASA board members represent those suburban jurisdictions.

Dan Tangherlini, acting director of the city’s transportation division, said the city is continuing to issue permits for WASA workers to dig up streets to make repairs while government lawyers try to resolve the dispute over WASA’s overdue street-cut fees.

WASA’s Board of Directors is not scheduled to meet until September and must vote before officials can pay the disputed bill, which they say would be a violation of the agency’s congressionally approved chartering legislation.

"WASA’s code, which was approved by Congress, expressly prohibits WASA from transferring funds to the (city’s) General fund except for services received from the District of Columbia," WASA’s Brown wrote to House D.C. appropriations subcommittee Chairman Ernest J. Istook’s chief of staff. The street-cut fees flow into the city’s general fund, and WASA officials contend the agency would receive no service for the payment of fees since WASA already makes street repairs.

WASA spokeswoman Libby Lawson said city officials estimated the fees would cost her agency about $6 million a year, but WASA estimates the costs at $14-$19 million a year, depending upon what portion of the city’s water and sewer infrastructure would be subject to the fees. The agency maintains 1,800 miles of sewer mains and 1,200 miles of water mains, plus individual pipes that run from main lines to each of WASA’s customers. WASA said its estimate of increased costs does not include pipes that support 8,881 fire hydrants in the District.

WASA estimates a typical D.C. residential customer’s water and sewer charges would increase $43 to $56 a year if the street-cut fees must be passed on to consumers. —Staff writer Brad Martin contributed to this story

Copyright 2000, The Common Denominator