Saline Grapples With Skyrocketing Water Bills

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The wastewater treatment plant. Image Credit: City of Saline

The City of Saline was expecting that water and sewer bills for its residents would go up only modestly this quarter. But the Saline City Council Chamber was filled, Monday evening, with residents complaining of rates that had gone up by hundreds of dollars. Some saw their bills go up by thousands.

“The city is pricing me out of being able to spend my retirement, and my wife’s retirement in this town,” One resident told Council. He said that he was “one of the lucky ones because” his bill had only gone up by 90 percent. “The city is pricing the middle class out of being able to afford … and invest in their community.”

The Council voted unanimously to extend the deadline to pay the fees by 30 days, until December 1 at 5:00 p.m. City Manager Colleen O’Toole suggested this in order to give her staff time to form an internal task force to get to the bottom of what is happening.

“I think that there is some investigation work that we need to do,” O’Toole told the Sun Times News after the meeting. “I would even go so far as to say that if you have a significant increase to the usage associated in your bill, hold off for a moment on paying that until you schedule a meeting with our Department of Public Works to investigate [and see] if there is something occurring.”

Saline’s rapidly aging sewage treatment plant has needed to be overhauled for years, especially since it is widely agreed to be nowhere big enough to handle the projected growth of the community. One resident testified in the public comment section that he remembered the smell from the wastewater treatment plant regularly being unpleasant as far back as 11 years ago. The City in fact was underinvesting in the plant and eventually racked up a list of violations so long that the State of Michigan intervened and forced the city to agree to an administrative consent order, which is forcing the city to make public health and environmental safety improvements to the plant by modernizing and expanding it.

The City is also in the process of replacing its aging meters with digital ones. City officials suggested that it might be possible that some bills might have gone up because the newer meters might have given a more accurate read. But the numbers have surprised everyone, even members of the City Council.

“I just don’t understand how you were surprised,” Another member of the public said. “We have to see more transparency around these numbers if we’re expected to pay.”

The wide range of sudden increases in both rates and the amount of water the statements they received say they have gotten are wildly inconsistent. One resident said that her statement claimed that she had used about 50,000 gallons more water than she had over the previous few cycles.

The experience of dealing with the city’s bureaucracy was widely criticized for being uncoordinated and confusing. A great deal of criticism was also made about how projects around the city are funded on what was characterized by several members of the public as a series of unnecessary add ons.

Federal help is possible, and some federal income has already come in. The Council emphasized how much citizen communication with federal elected officials like both of Michigan’s Democratic Senators Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow are in getting more federal financial assistance. But the situation is complicated slightly because while the City is currently represented in the House of Representatives by the Republican Tim Walberg, the redrawing of Michigan’s congressional districts by the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission will soon place Saline under the representation of the Democrat Debbie Dingell. It was repeated over and over again that repeated calls from local residents increases the chances of federal funding for this project.

County-level resources exist for people who face financial hardship in paying their bills. Washtenaw County’s Department of Community and Economic Development runs a Low-Income Household Water Assistance Program, which can provide up to $650 for qualifying households. According to the County, qualifying households can get help “in direct payment assistance towards water and wastewater bills for household accounts in arrears or in disconnect status, and/or assistance with reconnection fees when services have been disconnected.” Funding is not unlimited however, and may run out if too many applicants apply before the end of next September. You can apply online.

The city’s communication strategy was widely criticized. The city has held numerous city council meetings and public meetings that were sparsely attended for well over a year, which several residents said they were unaware of.

City Hall will host a town hall on this subject on October 12 for anyone with questions, suggestions or who wants to seek more information. It will be held in the City Council Chamber at 5:30 p.m.

This is a developing story and will be covered in a subsequent article.

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