More on Portland water billing "service" charges
Our two recent posts about water billing by the City of Portland have elicited some interesting responses. One reader who was victimized by the city's abrupt price-jacking maneuvers wrote in with this:
I read your blog and saw that you were talking about the water bureau and the base charges. I thought you might like some of the back story on this issue.I think that information has been in the media already, but what was more interesting to me was the ombudsman's final report on the incident, which the reader also sent me. I've posted it here. In it, the ombudsman's office made some observations that imply criticism beyond the sewer-only customers' complaints:
I am a SE Portland resident who has a well but am on sewer. For many years the Water Bureau has been collecting the sewer payments and just tacked on a small base charge for expenses. This situation changed for me this last July. My base charge went up 597% at that time from around $3+ to $19-20 per bill and my bill went to monthly.
I tried with PWB and BES to find out why and fix this. Long story short, this didn't come from BES, and the PWB from top and bottom either didn't know what was happening or just stated this was being done as a service to me. Well, I really don't care for this kind of service so I complained and met the old brick wall and after many calls.
I called the ombudsman office and Kristen Erbes from that office listened and was very helpful. She worked on this for several months and the final outcome was that the PWB didn't have ordinance to back this up. The PWB had done this as a business decision and even though they agreed to switch all 205 well owners back to quarterly they wouldn't refund the extra charges because it wasn't a mistake.
While the Ombudsman certainly appreciates the convenience monthly billing would provide many customers, we do not believe this convenience should come at a price of $150 more per year. This is especially true for sewer-only well accounts where a meter is not even read.It looks to me as though Portland is the only city among its peers that is charging for the "privilege" of quarterly billing, and that it's charging up a storm for bimonthly and monthly billing as well. While the city is surveying water customers about what sort of billing they'd prefer, it ought to ask itself why it has to charge so much for billing compared to other cities.
The Ombudsman looked at comparable jurisdictions and the service charges they issue to see how Portland's charges compare. As shown in the following table, Portland's service charges for monthly billed accounts are higher than service charges levied by other comparable jurisdictions.
Annual Combined Water/Sewer Billing Charges
Estimated Charges per Year
Jurisdiction Quarterly Bimonthly Monthly Charlotte N/A N/A $43.20 Denver N/A $35.88 $46.44 Kansas City N/A $139.50 $202.68 Seattle N/A N/A $186.00 Portland $77.58 $116.35 $232.70 [Footnotes omitted. -- JB]
Other utilities including both Seattle and Northwest Natural provide budget billing or average billing in which the estimated annual usage is divided into 11 monthly installments and the final bill refunds the customer if their usage falls below the estimated amount or bills the customer if their usage exceeds the estimated amount. This is a customer service provided without additional charge.
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2. The Water Bureau should go further to balance the convenience of more frequent billing and the cost that is passed on to customers. The Water Bureau reports that they offer budget/equalized billing for free. If this alternative exists, then it is hard to justify switching accounts to monthly billing at an added cost of $150 per year.
3. The City Council should look closely at the difference in base charges between quarterly, bi-monthly, and monthly accounts before adopting the next rate ordinance to ensure Portland Water Bureau Customers are being charged fairly for the services they receive.