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Sewer bills are causing sticker shock

By Shane Benjamin Herald staff writer

A woman who lives just north of Durango city limits is outraged that her sewer bill will nearly triple next month because of a new rate structure adopted by the city.

Juliane Mortello said her sewer bill will increase about 2½ times next month as a result of a new rate structure adopted by the city.

Mortello has been paying about $24.50 per month for sewer service, but that rate will increase to $62.57 in January when the city implements a flat fee for non-city residents who are connected to the city sewer system but do not receive city water.

The flat rate will apply to about 80 homes, mostly residents along Spring Creek Drive and County Road 203, just north of city limits, said Durango Finance Director Julie Brown.

The city and Animas Water Co. dispute who is responsible for the huge increase.

The city sets sewer rates based on how much water each household uses during a typical winter month, when water is generally used indoors and not for landscaping.

The flat rate is being applied in areas where the city can’t accurately determine normal water usage for households, Brown said.

A handful of residents north of Durango are connected to the city sewer system but receive water from the Animas Water Co., Brown said. Animas Water has refused to allow the city to obtain accurate reads on its customers’ water usage, she said, so the city decided to set a flat rate for those households based on average usage.

A Colorado Municipal League study determined the average household consumes 5,000 gallons of water per month.

But Mortello said she lives alone and uses only 1,100 to 2,000 gallons per month, much less than the average.

She said the flat fee is unfair to her.

“It’s like a complete other utility bill,” Mortello said of the $38 increase.

Brown said the problem rests with Animas Water Co.

“The problem is we can’t get accurate water reads from these customers, because Animas Water Co. is not giving us that information anymore,” she said. “We used to be able to get it ourselves, and they were supposed to get it to us, and they won’t give it to us.”

John Ott, manager of Animas Water, said he’s not sure exactly how the situation has gotten to this point, but he plans to work with the city to provide the information it needs.

“I’ll provide them with whatever they want,” he said.

Part of the problem lies in the way Animas Water records water usage during the winter. Instead of checking the meters during the snowy months, which can involve using a shovel to get to the meter, Animas Water provides an estimate during the winter months and makes an adjustment if necessary in March, when meter readers reach the meters, he said.

The city’s estimate that residents use an average of 5,000 gallons per month is overstated, Ott said. He estimated average winter usage at closer to 3,000 gallons per month.

Ed Zink, a board member with the water district, said he was unaware of the flat rate being applied to some residents, and he disputed that Animas Water has refused to turn over water-usage figures to the city.

“We’d tell them water usage if they asked us,” he said. “We have never said, ‘No, we won’t tell you.’ I’m puzzled by this, quite frankly.”

He said: “I can assure you one thing, we’re not trying to be difficult. It is news to me that the city is using the water-usage issue to set a flat rate.”

Mortello said the city sent her a letter this month informing residents of the change. Attached with the letter was a copy of her water bill from Animas Water Co. So she doesn’t understand how the city can claim it doesn’t know how much water is being used.

The bill from Oct. 21 through Nov. 20 shows she used about 1,000 gallons, 20 percent of the average being used by the city.

“Their average is outrageous,” she said.

shane@durangoherald.com

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