It’s hard to embrace the city of Schenectady’s plans to change the way it bills property owners for water use.
Motivating the proposed change, according to Paul LaFond, deputy director of water and wastewater, is a desire for a fairer, simpler way to assess people for how much water they use. OK, but if that’s truly the case, why not put everyone on a meter, and there’ll be no question?
Unfortunately, the city is broke and can’t afford upwards of $1,000 per property that meters would cost. It was supposed to have put the city’s roughly 1,500 commercial properties on meters seven years ago — borrowing $3.1 million to do so as part of a big energy- (and money-) saving package from Siemens Building Technologies, but the meters never got purchased and no one in City Hall seems to know why.
LaFond makes the argument that the existing formula for billing residential users is unfair because it is based largely on the number of bathroom fixtures in a house, plus lot frontage (which is supposed to account for lawn-watering). Thus someone with a big house with lots of fixtures and a big lot pays more, even if only a couple people live in the house; while someone with a small house and relatively few fixtures pays less, even if a lot of people live in the house.
LaFond makes the case that a flat $300 per household charge would be fairer to most homeowners, but it’s hard to see how. The odds are, the bigger the house and the more plumbing fixtures, the more people live there and the more water gets used. There may be exceptions to the rule, but a flat $300 fee would probably cost more people more money. That’s certainly true of the people in modest homes with but one full bath, and we’d guess they’re in the majority.
City officials say the rate structure isn’t designed to raise revenue — that it’s illegal to raise more through water and sewer taxes than is necessary to run the system. We certainly hope that’s the case, i.e. that the city isn’t adopting a back-door property tax hike, a la the Stratton garbage tax. But even if this plan is revenue-neutral, we think it’s less fair to more people — especially those in small homes, who are presumably less affluent — than the current system.