Our city has been in the regional news quite a bit lately with the raft of high water bills and some truly shockingly massive bills. Some of us on the City Council have been talking about this issue since 2022, and I wrote about this back in February, before the latest round of bills went out. Despite improved communication about this from the City, there's still a lot of confusion about these bills.

$41k water bill

Putting aside for the moment the handful of eye-popping bills that have made the news and clearly are examples of something extraordinary going on with some accounts, there's a lot of concern on the part of folks who recently received a water and sewer bill hundreds of dollars higher than previous bills. There are multiple things happening here at the same time, so it's important to separate them out.

First things first, FY24 is the second year of four planned successive years of double-digit increases to both our water and sewer volumetric rates in order to pay for modernization of our sewer system, including sewer separation and new infrastructure like the Poplar Street pump station. The Finance Committee did vote against recommending approval of the first proposal from the Administration last June before approving lower, revised rates. But these rate increases still were not insignificant. So starting in the second half of last year, water and sewer bills would've gone up around 10 percent -- and amount that could be noticeable by some account holders, even with variable billing.

So if you noticed an increase to your water and sewer bills in the second half of 2023 and didn't replace your water meter in the months beforehand, you're likely seeing the result of the new rates. 

However, most of the unexpectedly-large bills constituents are reporting in the first few months of 2024 like are instead due to the "true-ups" happening to their accounts after they replaced their old water meters that stopped transmitting actual usage to the City years ago. Those who replaced their water meters over the winter saw the difference between the actual usage while their old meters weren't transmitting and the usage the City had been estimating. While I wish those amounts were broken out more clearly on the statements, in most cases this most recent round of bills is not indicative of future water and sewer bills.

So if you replaced your water meter over this past winter and then got a large water bill in the last couple of months, you're likely seeing the result of a one-time charge for water you used over the past few years but did not pay for at the time because the City didn't know your actual usage due to the non-transmitting water meter issue.

Circling back to the exorbitant bills, we need to be verifying that the usage included in these bills is accurate. If it's established that this water really was delivered to the account holders, then we should be getting creative in looking at ways to potentially ease this financial burden with subsidies. I supported Ward 1 Councilor Matt McLaughlin's resolution last week calling for ARPA funds to be used for this purpose. And I continue to hope the City can make across-the-board statement credits happen.

I'm also pushing to explore whether we can find a way to offer interest-free payment plans to residents for whom these unexpected large balances will take time to pay off. Massachusetts General Law requires municipalities to charge 14-percent APR on any unpaid balances. But I've been talking to our state delegation about seeking relief from this requirement to allow us to waive interest in these instances. And the City Council's Legislative and Policy Analyst and I are talking to the Administration and City staff about pursuing this option. I hope to have an update on this before the next City Council meeting next Thursday.

Jake Wilson


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