Many local churches’ sewer bills increased dramatically last year, most more than doubling, after the City of Moab changed the formula it uses to bill customers. Since then, leaders of Moab’s faith communities have been attempting to get city leaders to adjust the formula, since they say the price increase is not associated with any actual increase in their sewer usage.
The lobbying began last year, when church leaders first approached the city’s former manager, David Everitt, to ask for a fix on Aug. 7, 2018. One year following that meeting, the formula has not changed, and faith leaders say they are renewing their efforts.
“We are now nearing the anniversary of seeking a solution to this significant concern,” the church leaders said in a letter sent to the Moab City Council and mayor July 25.
The change in the formula is in part a result of the need to cover the city’s costs on its new water reclamation facility, according to City Engineer Chuck Williams.
“We are paying for the $14 million Water Reclamation Facility as well as maintaining and rehabilitating the 30 miles of sewer lines and 570 manholes within the city’s sanitary sewer system,” Williams said in an email. “That system had not been upgraded in 60 years.”
How the city measures sewage without touching it
To calculate the monthly cost of sewer services, the city does not directly measure the outflow of sewage from facilities. Williams said that directly measuring sewer usage is “rarely done in cities due to the cost and difficulty of maintaining the flow meters.” He added that there are “other technical issues with individual flow metering given the intermittent nature of sewer flow.”
Rather than directly measuring sewer usage, Moab measures how much water facilities take from the city supply, and the city uses that measurement as a proxy for sewer usage, since in many cases, a large portion of water entering a facility leaves via sewer.
However, some facilities primarily use water for landscaping, to prepare food, to cool the air or for other uses. For such buildings, a smaller percentage of water goes toward conveying sewage compared to other uses.
In these cases, water consumption can be a poor proxy for measuring sewer usage. As a workaround, the city historically used average water usage in winter months as its proxy for annual sewer usage.
Winter water usage
Before changing its formula for estimating sewer usage, the city billed churches for sewer services the same way it billed residential properties: By calculating average monthly water usage during the winter and using that number during the spring, summer and fall months as an estimate for sewer usage during those months.
Significantly less water is used for landscaping during the winter, and swamp coolers get turned off when it’s cold. Because of these seasonal behaviors, non-sewer water usage is lowest during the winter, making it the time of year when water usage best estimates sewer usage.
This method, Williams said, uses what he called the winter average.
The flaw in the previous formula
A major downside of using winter water usage as a proxy for year-round sewer usage is that, for seasonal businesses, the calculation is severely inaccurate, faith leaders contend.
For hotels, restaurants, bed -and-breakfast facilities, and other tourism-driven businesses, sewer usage spikes significantly during the spring and fall because of a spike in visitation during those seasons, and is relatively low during the winter.
Consequentially, these businesses’ annual sewer usage is calculated to be artificially low because winter sewer usage is relatively low; there are fewer visitors flushing toilets and washing their hands at that time.
Because the sewer usage formula was low-balling many businesses’ actual sewer usage, the city was having trouble meeting the nexus between the cost of sewer services and the sewer usage bills it was sending to businesses with its existing formula.
The flaw in the current formula
The formula now being applied to churches for approximating their sewer usage employs what Williams calls actual water usage as the proxy for sewer usage rather than the winter average.
Although the new formula accounts for fluctuations in tourist visitation, it does not account for fluctuations in non-sewer water usage such as landscaping and air conditioning. Because of this, water that goes into swamp coolers and lawn care is conflated with sewage conveyance from toilets and sinks, all of it counted as sewer usage.
Water that goes toward lawn and garden care thus appears on sewer usage bills, as well, meaning the city charges some property owners, churches in particular, twice for the water usage increase: once on the water bill and again on the sewer bill.
How elected officials are responding
The Times-Independent reached out to the Moab City Council and mayor regarding the matter of the new formula being applied to churches. Council members Rani Derasary and Mike Duncan responded.
Duncan said that he has been the primary advocate for churches on the city council, pressing the city to address their concerns.
“So far, nothing has changed,” Duncan said. “In the city’s defense, they have a lot on their plate. Still, I think the churches have a valid point that deserves resolution, the sooner the better.”
Duncan said that he would like to see churches’ sewer bills calculated the way they used to be, as residential properties are. He said that this would redress formula errors that fail to account for the landscaping toward which many churches put their water.
“The city has some objections to doing what I’ve suggested,” Duncan said. “Administrative complexity, the annual budget and process cycle, the potential of abuse, and the readjustment of fees across the board to pay sewer expenses, no less, no more. Still, I think the city should correct this oversight, as soon as possible.
“And by the way, the issue has nothing to do with religion or what churches do for the town – it’s just a matter of assigning the most accurate method to every user,” said Duncan.
Derasary echoed this concern regarding covering costs, asking rhetorically, “If the rate structure changes, and the current structure reflects true costs, who in town will pick up/pay the difference?”