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Water bills rise with new plan
Tiered pricing policies upset residents

LAWRENCEVILLE - Some Gwinnettians are unhappy with the most recent water bill they received.

They say their bills went up drastically, largely the result of tiered pricing policies adopted in March by the Board of Commissioners and the Water and Sewage Authority Board that took effect in June.

The tiered pricing structure, which customers see on their bill as "Summer Surcharge Tier 1" or "Summer Surcharge Tier 2," has one goal in mind, Gwinnett Water Resources Department spokeswoman Lynn Smarr said: conservation.

"The goal of conservation pricing is to reduce excess discretionary water use, such as outdoor irrigation, by making water use increasingly more expensive," Smarr said. "Conservation pricing encourages smart water use and helps protect our natural resources, all the time and not just during drought conditions."

Smarr said Gwinnett will add a third tier beginning Jan. 1. Because it is a member of the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District, the third tier is required. On Jan. 1, another change will come as conservation rates will be applied yearround instead of only during the months of June through October.

The recent bills received by some residents both surprised and irritated them.

"I think they're hosing us," said Duluth's Bob Greene, who saw his $101.47 bill in June jump to $275.97 in July. He said all he's done differently in that month is water his lawn, using the odd and even day watering schedule.

Same goes for Grayson's James Ollick. His June bill of $19.65 jumped to $323.35 in July. About $148 of that amount was because of the summer surcharges.

"They've tacked on a rate increase as well as a summer surcharge rate for different consumption levels knowing that the water ban lift this summer would create a windfall in additional revenue," Greene said. "There may have been some public notice of this, but it certainly was kept under the public radar screen."

Smarr said for summer surcharges to appear on a customer's bill, the user must exceed two boundaries. First, for tier 1, they must exceed 10,000 gallons in the billing period and must have exceeded their winter average use by 125 percent.

Smarr said typical residential usage is about 6,000 to 7,000 gallons per month.

Once summer usage exceeds 200 percent of the winter average, the price structure advances to tier 2.

The rate applied to each tier to calculate the additional summer surcharge gradually increases, too. In tier 1, 97 cents is the rate used. In tier 2, the rate jumps to $3.86.

Effective Jan. 1, a three-tiered approach will also be implemented in addition to the increase for the "volumetric charge" for each 1,000 gallons of water that passes through a water meter. The current charge is $3.86. On Jan. 1 the increase rises to $4.11. Then to compute the third tier of pricing for usage that will exceed 12,000 gallons per month, the rate used will be equal to twice that of the volumetric rate - $8.22.

Confused? Don't worry, you're not alone.

"I defy anybody with less than five or six years of college and two degrees to figure out from the Internet how this works on the winter, summer, tier 1, tier 2 schedule," Lawrenceville's Ted Marshall said. "I don't understand it. You need an accountant to figure this stuff out."

Smarr said if customers want assistance and explanations about how their winter average is calculated and how it affected their summer surcharges, the department is more than willing to work with them.

"We speak with each customer individually and help address their specific concerns and apply policies fairly across all rate payers," she said.

She advised those customers requiring assistance to phone 678-376-6800 or to send an e-mail to dwr_billing@gwinnettcounty.com.

Smarr defended the tiered pricing structure in place, which she said is sort of new for North Georgia but not entirely new for Gwinnettians.

"Our approach to managing revenues and our water resources is a tiered rate structure that will encourage conservation during peak months and during the highest demand period," she said. "As a public utility, we are required to generate enough revenue to be self-sustaining, which means we have to generate enough revenue to maintain our infrastructure and to provide a level of service that optimizes value and cost."

That policy doesn't make Marshall feel any better about his bill.

"The price of water is getting absolutely ridiculous and we have no recourse as citizens of the county," Marshall said. "I'm totally frustrated."