Water and sewer bills are being mailed out this weekend to a large swath of the city. For many property owners, these will be the first water and sewer bills since their water meters were replaced in the fall or winter, meaning that these bills will be for actual usage after potentially years of estimated usage. Many property owners have experienced sticker shock over unexpectedly large water and sewer bills due to this "true-up" when estimated usage has been significantly below actual usage for a long period.

Bill sticker shock

This is creating creating really alarming and frustrating situations. Recent large water and sewer volumetric rate increases mean folks are paying the much higher FY24 rates for water and sewer usage that occurred years ago when rates were lower. I suppose this could be viewed as a reward for those who got their water meters changed out earlier and were charged earlier, lower rates for any true-up amounts. It doesn't seem fair, but I'm not sure how to solve for it.

The large balances due are causing major headaches for property owners, many of whom have emailed the City Council seeking help. Unfortunately, the City generally isn't legally allowed to just forgive all or a portion of a bill, and adding insult to financial injury, our code of ordinances dictate that a 14-percent interest rate applies to balances not paid on time. 

Since increased expenses often times are passed on to tenants by landlords, this situation is having a negative impact on our city's sizable renter community. This is all happening as we're deeply concerned about rental affordability in Somerville, with increased property assessments already are pushing rents higher. This is all making it tough even for benevolent landlords to justify keeping rents affordable. I know of one case where a renter cited the increased water and sewer rates when proactively offering to increase the rent they were paying.

So what can be done? I'm pushing for greater financial assistance to Somerville property owners in need. The Administration spoke of a $1,000 credit per account last June when the City Council approved the increased FY24 rates. And I'll continue advocating for additional billing credits for low-income and senior households, either through the program offered in conjunction with Cambridge or possibly going it alone.

I'm also advocating for greater flexibility for households facing unexpectedly large water bills. I'd love to see us recognize the realities of household budgeting and set up payment plans that allow these outlier bills to be paid over time rather than in one lump sum. And I want to see the City Council revisit that ordinance to create a waiver process for the required 14-percent interest rate on unpaid balances.

Jake Wilson

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Somerville City Councilor-At-Large (he/him/él)