By Rich Pollack
After months of discussion and number-crunching, the Highland Beach Town Commission has all but finalized a proposed five-year water and sewer rate structure designed to be more equitable while also making utilities operations self-sufficient.
In developing the structure, town commissioners have come up with a simplified plan that keeps upcoming water rates pennies lower for the lowest water users but encourages conservation by charging those who use lots of water a significantly higher rate.
“If you’re using a lot of water, you’re definitely going to be paying more than you are now,” Town Manager Marshall Labadie said.
Under the new rates, which could become effective by June, a customer who uses 5,000 gallons during a two-month billing cycle likely would see the water and sewer bill drop by a dime, from $92.35 to a projected $92.25.
At the other end of the spectrum, customers who use 500,000 gallons every two months would see the water and sewage bill jump from an estimated $2,646 to a projected $4,058.
Most customers whose usage lies in the middle, at 13,000 gallons every two months, for example, would see a projected increase of about $37.27 in the bi-monthly water bill.
In coming years those water bills will almost certainly increase as the town moves to have money collected from customers cover the total cost of providing water and sewer services.
“The goal is to have an independent utility no longer funded by property taxes,” Labadie said.
For the past several years, the town’s general fund has been subsidizing the utilities to cover the cost of operation, maintenance and debt service.
The new proposed rate structure is designed to change that in five years so that while the water and sewer rate will increase, fewer dollars will be coming out of the operating budget.
That means the town most likely will be able to decrease its tax rate, which in turn could translate into slight drops in municipal taxes over the five-year period for many residents.
For town leaders, developing a plan that would generate the revenue needed to make water and sewer service independent while at the same time making it equitable turned out to be a complex and arduous task.
After months of discussion with consultants, a plan devised by Natasha Moore — a member of the town’s Financial Advisory Board and soon to be the town’s vice mayor — drew full commission support.
“It was definitely a balancing act,” said Moore, a former senior actuary and practice leader at NCCI in Boca Raton and now the owner, along with her husband, of Live South Florida Realty.
Under the plan presented by Moore, all utility customers will pay the same “ready to serve” $40 per billing cycle flat fee for water service and $29.55 for sewer service. That’s a slight increase from the $33.59 current fixed cost for water and a decrease from the $44 fixed cost for wastewater treatment.
The plan, which does not differentiate users based on whether they live in a single-family home or condominium, includes a five-tier system that lowered the per-gallon rate for people using under 10,000 gallons every two months. That group makes up the bulk of users in the system.
On the wastewater side, while the fixed fee was reduced, the plan now includes a usage charge of $2.41 per 1,000 gallons of water usage up to 20,000 gallons.
Moore said that the plan is designed to accomplish three goals: to simplify the rate structure, to make that structure more equitable and to ensure utilities are self-sufficient in five years.
“I felt I could develop something that balanced all those goals,” she said, explaining why she volunteered to help commissioners come up with a palatable rate structure