Monthly water and sewer bills for one of Columbia’s oldest sporting goods stores, Todd & Moore, have doubled since mid-summer when the city changed rates and the way it calculates bills.
“All of a sudden, we opened our bill and said, ‘Yikes,’ ” Chuck Todd, store president said Thursday. “You might be able to stomach 5 percent, 6 percent. But 108 percent? That’s crazy.”
As Todd calculates it, over a year’s time the changes will cost his Huger Street store, which has a sprinkler system in its warehouse, $3,231 for water and sewer. That squeezes profits at his 70-year-old business harder in a struggling economy.
City Council members, pelted with complaints from customers like Todd, are frustrated that city utility department employees don’t know the extent of what might be the overbilling of some customers since July 1 – or how to fix it.
On Tuesday, council met behind closed doors and then voted to address part of the issue, giving initial approval to changing the rate ordinance to comply with council’s original intent on the new rate structure. The intent, utility officials say, is that the first 100 cubic feet of water usage should not be charged using a more expensive “base rate.”
That’s how some folks seem to have been billed. Others say they have gotten the steeper rate for the entirety of their bill or are shocked at how hard the rate changes hit them.
But council did not authorize credits or refunds, said assistant city manager Missy Gentry.
That leaves homeowners howling.
“I’m disappointed that the city has decided not to reimburse homeowners on the mistake the city made on the rate schedule,” said George Glassmeyer of Irmo, a former police officer and prosecutor.
Glassmeyer said Gentry first offered a refund and then denied him one.
City manger Steve Gantt has directed the utilities department to look deeper to see if the core of the problem is systemic overcharges, sporadic billing problems or incorrect computer programming for bills.
“We’ve had a lot of questions about it, especially from folks who have sprinklers,” Gantt said. Sprinkler systems require either a larger pipe or a separate line, which means bigger bills.
Under the rate structure that took effect July 1, customers who use more water pay substantially higher base rates, which really are availability fees for access to the water and sewer system.
Base rates jumped from 16 percent for a typical homeowner to as much as 28 times higher for large users. Inside the city limits, the rate was $5.17 monthly. Now it ranges from $6 to $255 for the largest users. Out-of-city rates are even higher.
And those charges are in addition to an average 7.6 percent overall increase for water consumption, which also took effect July 1. The number of calls the city received about billing rose by about 700 in September compared with the month before the rate increases, said Joey Jaco, director of utilities and engineering.
Gantt said he would present council with options for addressing the missteps at its Oct. 16 meeting.
Council members Tameika Isaac Devine, Cameron Runyan and Mayor Steve Benjamin say they aren’t sure that all customers are being over charged. They are awaiting Gantt’s findings.
“The anecdotal evidence is mixed,” Runyan said. “My question is, is there something systemically wrong? We need to know with absolute certainty that rates are being calculated the way we said they would.”
Todd said the rate increases sends the wrong message to businesses, which city leaders are seeking to keep or attract.
“They’re going to break the backs of the people who are trying to support it – the city,” he said.
Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.