Saline Passes Packages To Reduce High Water Bills

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The wastewater treatment plant. Image Credit: City of Saline

Note: This story has been updated to include a press release from the City of Saline.

The Saline City Council took steps at its October 17th meeting to explain what has gone wrong with its sewer and water bills and to make steps towards solving them. But several people in the community – including concerned citizens and city councilors, still aren't satisfied that the community has gotten to the bottom of everything.

“There still feels like there is something missing here. [It] still feels like numbers are off, something is a little out of whack,” one resident said during the public comment period, Monday. “What I would suggest to the City as you work on solutions is work into a plan on how to communicate a sort of ‘after action report’ to the citizens. What went wrong? How did it go wrong? … I think the rest of the citizens who didn’t hear tonight’s meeting would like to hear from our city ‘Here’s what happened. Here’s how we’re going to fix it. Here’s how we’re going to plan for it in the future.’ My recommendation would be when we hire these consultants that we build in some sort of communications plan.”

The City has identified 260 households with problematic water bills. They have made 57 house calls as of October 13, with 20 more scheduled after that, according to a city memo.

The City has identified a number of problems through these meetings. O’Toole said that the previous treasurer scheduled the reads of the meters weeks before it would have normally been done. This means that the bills that have caused weeks of consistent frustration and objection from the public at Council meetings stem from a period of billing that lasted 22 days more of water usage than the usual 91 to 93 days that a typical quarterly bill would cover, and at a higher rate than before.

"Under Treasurer Cole, this discrepancy was identified, and she immediately got to work with our utility billing software company to begin to put together a batch fix. It is expected that those new adjusted amounts will be shown by November 1 in people’s systems. But it’ll take the 22 days [we’re estimating] and credit that amount at the lower rate; the pre-June 1 rate," City Manager Colleen O'Toole said, Monday.

About half of the house calls led the city to identify a leak somewhere on the property as being at least part of the problem, according to O’Toole. This coupled with an inconsistency in the reads of outdoor and indoor meters, the fact that the City is replacing old meters with new ones, and the fact that this took place in the summer – when the average household uses more water than normal on things like water gardens and pools – all contributed to the higher bills.

“While the City strives to design billing quarters that are 91 to 93 days on average, the summer 2022 billing period covered a 110 to 114 day period for approximately 97% of ratepayers,” City Treasurer Elle Cole said in a press release, Tuesday. “This significantly contributed to overall usages for some residents as their total usage included a roughly 25% longer billing cycle than average.”

To be clear, current Treasurer Elle Cole is not the treasurer who allegedly changed the date of the water meter reads. Why this decision was made remains unclear. Attempts to contact the previous treasurer were not immediately successful.

City Councilor Jim Dell’Orco told the Sun Times News in an interview on Tuesday by phone that he still suspected that there was another factor that the Council and City staff haven’t grasped yet that is also contributing to the spikes.

“I really feel that until we work through all of these issues and complaints, we are not going to have a firm grasp on all of what is going on,” Dell’Orco said.

The City was told by a subcontractor, Baker Tilly, that water bills for the average household would go up by $81. Instead, they went up by hundreds of dollars. Some households even saw several thousand dollar increases.

The Council did three things unanimously to help residents. First, they passed a discretionary sewer credit resolution to reduce bills on the 22 days that should not have been on the previous quarterly water bill, which will apply to 97 percent of bills. No application is necessary to receive the credit. 

“If individual user’s bill was read between May 9 and May 13 of this year, they are going to see a credit on their bill,” O’Toole said in a phone interview, Tuesday. “It’s going to be based on your consumption because it is going to be based on the consumption charge between the old rate and the new rate.”

What this means is that the credit will apply to the 22 days that should have been in the billing period before this high one, and the other 90 or so days will be charged at the new rate, which is higher. This will be available to anyone who has not paid their bills yet. Anyone who has already paid their bills will see this credit come in their bills for the first quarter of the 2023 fiscal year. The City has set up a webpage which will allow residents to plug in their personal information and see how the credit will affect them.

Second, they approved an application for a $1.5 million grant to replace an equalization tank at the aging wastewater treatment plant. They also voted $95,746
in spending for a new RBC shaft at the plant.

Part of the reason why water reads were so inaccurate is that the older meters the City is replacing naturally get worn out over time. One side faces the outside air, which the City says exposes its parts to more extreme changes in temperature and moisture, causing the two halves of the old systems to fall out of sync over the years.

“Final meter reads are always based on the internal number because this reflects the more accurate rate of usage. If residents have any questions about whether this issue has impacted their total usage calculation, the City does retain a record image of the inside and outside meter components when changing out old meters. The good news is that once the meter change out is complete, ratepayers can expect to see more consistent consumption in future quarters,” Director of Public Works Larry Sirls said in Tuesday’s press release.

The City has requested federal funding before. Those requests didn’t go anywhere, which is why the City is asking that everyone in Saline contact their state and federal representatives. The more people that ask for funding the more it is likely that some or all of the requested grants will be granted.

Mayor Brian Marl said that the City is working with Michigan’s Senator Gary Peters, a Democrat, to try and secure funding. Peters did not respond to requests for comment.

“Communities across Michigan are facing incredible challenges because of failures of their infrastructure, including their water systems. These failures have threatened public safety, jeopardized our environment, and put serious financial hardships on local residents,” Eliza Duckworth, a spokesperson for Michigan’s other Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow, said in an email. “In response to these needs, Senator Stabenow championed efforts in Congress making the single-largest-investment ever in our nation’s drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater infrastructure through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Local governments also received unprecedented funding through the American Rescue Plan which can be used to fund a broad range of water and sewer projects. She will continue to do everything she can to support local communities in meeting these serious challenges.”

Former city councilor Mary Hess asked for the city to provide contact information for elected officials to help residents. It was also suggested that the city make a formal letter to make it quick and easy for citizens to make a united statement of support for federal funding.

“Congressman Walberg has been working to help address ongoing water issues in Saline. He previously requested, and Congress appropriated, $600,000 for the city’s pump station and utility improvements for FY2022,” Saline’s member of the House of Representatives, the Republican Tim Walberg, said in an emailed statement. “Specifically, this funding is for the reconstruction of the existing pump station and upsizing the pumps to address the current insufficient capacity and meet the demands of existing customers. This issue must be addressed by the City with complementary help from both the federal and state governments, and bipartisan efforts have been taking place and will continue to do so.”

Marl said that the future of grant funding will not be clear until after next month's midterm elections. Saline will no longer be in Walberg's district after that election, as the boundaries were changed by the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission, a recently created non-partisan body tasked with producing fair districts for the Legislature and House of Representative Districts that won't favor one political party over the other. Saline will instead be represented in the Sixth District, which Democrat Debbie

Dingell is running for reelection in. Dingell told the Sun Times News earlier this month that she has been in contact with the mayor, and she has toured the wastewater treatment plant. She will not be able to actually do anything for Saline until after the Midterms, assuming she wins her election, but is attempting to get up to speed.

"This is what I do for every community I represent: I understand what their issues are, understand what the challenges are. … I work with the state, the federal government, and county. I do think this is one of Saline’s top problems which is why I am starting to study it now. But I’ve got to be very careful. Once I do I will work with every impacted entity and available resources to see how I can help the City," Dingell said.

Councilor Janet Dillon explained that part of the reason this rate hike was so chaotic was due to the fact that the Council wasn’t aware of that the meters were read early, the policy on watering lawn extensions, nor about a supply chain issue causing a temporary shortage of replacement water meters. She also warned that because of the scale of the project, the unavoidability of the problem, and the facts of the city’s financial situation, rate hikes will be inevitable still.

“I will take full responsibility. I voted yes on the rate increases based on the information I was given. Some of these other factors I didn’t know about,” Dillon told the citizens sitting in the audience. She voted for seeking grant money like the rest of the Council members present but added “Doing that is like waiting to win the lottery. We’ve seen already that we were not chosen on numerous occasions for grants. We have received some. So, we cannot wait and see if we get the money. We have to be proactive and find a funding source. And right now, that comes through rate increases.”

Dell’Orco was slightly more optimistic about getting federal financial relief, Tuesday, but he acknowledged that it would require a mass letter writing campaign from Saline residents. Saline is also generally wealthier than other communities in Michigan, making it more difficult to receive grant funding than a poorer community. Calls have been made by some, including Dell’Orco, for the city to higher a full time grant writer.

Senator Peters and his staff can be contacted at:

Senator Stabenow and her staff can be contacted at:

Representative Dingell and her staff can be contacted at:

Representative Walberg and his staff can be contacted at:

Councilor Ceo and Councilor Krause were not at this October 17 meeting.

When asked, Dell’Orco said that he did not have faith in Baker Tilly and initially voted against the current billing setup. Baker Tilly did not respond to requests for comment.

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