City of Lawrence prepares to roll out new water billing method that charges more for high usage

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Come this spring, those who water their lawns or otherwise use larger than average amounts of water will have to pay 10% to 15% more for those extra gallons.

The Lawrence City Commission finalized this week the long-discussed inclining block rate structure for residential water fees, which will charge more per gallon for those who use large amounts of water in an effort to encourage conservation. The city will identify average water use for every Lawrence household, as opposed to a collective average, and households will be charged a higher rate per gallon for water significantly beyond that amount.

Commissioner Lisa Larsen, who is a retired environmental geologist, said it was important for the city to take this step. Larsen said the idea behind the new inclining block rate billing structure was to charge higher rates as usage went up, but to base that on a household’s individual usage habits.

“I do think it’s important,” Larsen said. “We wanted to encourage some level of efficiency, not only efficiency but also conservation in our water system.”

The commission first said it was in favor of an inclining block rate billing structure when it was initially proposed in November 2016, but the city’s billing system could not accommodate such a structure at the time. The commission has continued to voice support for the block rate structure since then and again indicated it was interested in the new structure in a brief discussion during the 2020 budget process this summer.

The commission finalized the rates Tuesday as part of its consent agenda. As part of that item, the commission finalized a previously agreed to increase in water and sewage rates for next year, which will go into effect Jan. 1, as well as the inclining block rate structure, which won’t go into effect until May 1.

Water volume charges in Lawrence, January through April 2020

Customer Class Inside City Outside City
Residential $6.96/1,000 gal $7.66/1,000 gal
Multifamily $5.33/1,000 gal $5.95/1,000 gal
Commercial $6.11/1,000 gal $6.73/1,000 gal
Industrial $5.60/1,000 gal $6.16/1,000 gal
Irrigation $6.96/1,000 gal $7.66/1,000 gal

As part of the inclining block rate, the city essentially identifies water used for irrigation or other accessory uses by comparing against each individual household’s average winter use for the months of December, January and February. There are three rates, and households are charged the lowest rate if their winter water use and nonwinter water use are roughly the same. The block one rate, at $6.70 per 1,000 gallons, is lower than the residential rate that will go into effect on Jan. 1, which is $6.96 per 1,000 gallons. As a household uses more water, it is charged more per gallon for the water used over certain thresholds, meaning a household could be charged up to three different rates for its water usage.

More specifically, if a household uses 125% or less of its winter average during the nonwinter months, it is charged $6.70 per 1,000 gallons of water, the lowest residential rate, or the block one rate. If a household uses more than 125% of its winter average, it is charged 10% more for the gallons used beyond 125%, or the block two rate. If the household more than doubles its winter average, it is charged 15% more for the gallons used beyond 200% of its winter average, or the block three rate.

Water volume charges in Lawrence, starting May 2020

Customer Class Inside City Outside City
Residential – Block 1* $6.70/1,000 gal $7.37/1,000 gal
Residential – Block 2* $7.37/1,000 gal $8.11/1,000 gal
Residential – Block 3* $7.71/1,000 gal $8.49/1,000 gal
Multifamily $5.33/1,000 gal $5.95/1,000 gal
Commercial $6.11/1,000 gal $6.73/1,000 gal
Industrial $5.60/1,000 gal $6.16/1,000 gal
Irrigation $7.71/1,000 gal $8.49/1,000 gal

*Residential blocks calculated using individual Winter Quarter Average

The billing blocks are determined each month, and the city’s billing system will re-measure each residential household’s winter average annually, according to a news release from the city. The release states that the new methodology encourages water conservation and provides better equity among customers. It goes on to state that households that use water for everyday tasks like bathing, cooking and laundry, with little to no additional warm-weather uses, will likely remain in the first block rate throughout the year.

Utility Billing Manager Kristy Webb pointed out that the block three water rate is the same as the city’s rate for irrigation, which will be $7.71 per 1,000 gallons beginning Jan. 1. Webb said that though houses with separate meters for their irrigation systems are uncommon, those households will essentially pay the block three rate for all irrigation. Webb also said that if a household adds people, it should inform the city and the city will take a two-month usage average that will replace the household’s former winter average, so that the household doesn’t end up paying higher rates per gallon just because it added people.

The changes come as the city is in the process of modernizing its water meter and billing systems. The city is preparing to launch a new billing system and online platform Monday, and it will begin preparations for the installation of a new automatic metering system next year. The current mechanical system must be read manually and only provides monthly water usage totals, but the new automated system will eventually enable customers to see more detailed data about their water usage. However, those improvements will not be in place by the time the new billing methodology is in place.

Deputy Director of Utilities Mike Lawless said the rollout of the new metering system would take approximately three years. He said planning and related system preparations for the installation of the new meters would begin in January and installations were set to begin in mid-2021. To update the approximately 34,000 meters in the city, he said will take from 15 to 18 months. Once residents have the new meters, they will be able to see their daily and even hourly usage.

Larsen said that she also remains interested in expanding the city’s utility billing assistance program, which currently only provides assistance to very low-income people age 60 and older. The Journal-World reported last year that the program provides assistance to less than 1% of Lawrence residents. Larsen said she planned to bring up that discussion as part of the 2021 budget process, which will begin in the spring.

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