STRASBURG — Town staff and policymakers understand the frustration that residents feel when they have to pay larger-than-normal water bills.
“That happened to me last year,” said Town Councilwoman Jocelyn Vena. “My bill was $2,300.”
“I told you directly,” she said, turning to Town Manager Wyatt Pearson. “You said, ‘That happened to me a couple years ago, too, when I just came into town.’”
The town couldn’t fix Vena’s bill or Pearson’s bill, and it can’t fix anyone else’s bill, except in certain circumstances outlined in the town’s Adjustment and Meter Policy.
Before moving to town, Vena said she lived in Purcellville, which had high water rates at the time — about as high as Strasburg is experiencing now since spending $25 million on a water treatment plant and public works building that the town is still paying for.
“I never thought about really questioning it, because it is what it is,” said Vena.
Discussing the matter of water and sewer billing at a Monday meeting of the town’s Infrastructure Committee, Pearson and several members of the Town Council listened to concerns from area residents about their bills.
Town resident Nathan Jordan, 38, recently complained to the town about an $832 bill he received after using sprinklers to water his lawn.
Jordan was charged for using 30,000 gallons, but his main contention is that the town charged him $416 in sewer charges, even though he said the town was aware that the water did not enter the sewer system and even took the initiative to send someone to his house when they noticed his water usage was higher than usual. They confirmed he was using sprinklers, he said, but never contacted him about the potential for drastically higher charges.
Jordan said he wasn’t aware of the town’s policy to charge residents water and sewer rates with no cost relief when residents water their lawns or fill their swimming pools. When he moved to town a year ago, he signed up for water online and wasn’t given an informational packet that the town gives to people who sign up in person.
“I’m lucky I’m in the position I am financially that this was paid,” he said. “’Cause when I said something to them, and I said, ‘I’m not paying this,’ they said, ‘We’ll just shut your water off.’ No. 1, that’s ridiculous. This isn’t like I said, ‘I’m not going to pay any of it.’ I said, “I’m gonna pay what I feel is right; I’ll send you guys $500.” But he said he was told, “If you don’t pay it all, it’s off.”
That’s problem No. 2, he said.
“The median income around here, this would crush some people in this town,” he said. “This is more than people’s mortgages. This is not OK.”
Strasburg is a small town with a big debt to pay on its relatively new water treatment plant, said Councilwoman Kim Bishop.
Though it’s easy for people to compare the town’s high water rates to those of other communities around Virginia, Bishop said that only works for communities of roughly the same size and population.
“Cities have people,” she said.
But Strasburg has only 2,700 water and sewer customers to pay into that fund. The cost of the water treatment plant will be spread around more as new people move into houses and businesses built in town, but in the meantime, the town’s few residents carry the burden.
“It doesn’t make any of us happy, but it’s a fact of where we live,” she said.
She and Pearson empathized with Jordan’s situation.
“I think your circumstance, everybody can relate to,” Pearson told him, “and I think we’ll continue to have conversations about it.”
But Pearson said lowering water rates and preventing bills from spiking isn’t as easy as changing the town’s policy.
“Anything based on circumstantial evidence or knowledge is just opening up the door for abuse and a slippery slope,” he said, “so we stick to the policies that we have on the books.”
A new smart water meter system that the town is considering implementing is expected to allow staff to charge by the gallon instead of rounding down to the nearest 1,000 gallons.
Vena said the minimum cost she has paid in town for water, sewer and trash pickup is $59.59 per month. That number is largely based on 1,000 gallons of metered water and the appropriate application of sewer charges, which are not metered. Being charged for 2,000 gallons brings a household’s bill up to just under $100, she said.
“Right,” Jordan said, “and can you imagine if you planned your budget every month for you and your family and you didn’t know, and then all of a sudden you had [a] $1,000, $800 water bill? Oh my God, that’s crazy.
“And the verbiage ‘it is what it is’ doesn’t fly,” he added.
Jordan said the same month he was charged more than $800, his neighbor was charged $1,000. Comparing notes, they realized they had both recently reseeded and sodded their lawns.
His neighbor was charged $500 in sewer costs for watering his lawn, Jordan said. “So, between two people alone, $800 in profit was made to this town? Where did it go?”
Money collected from water and sewer bills goes into the water and sewer fund, Bishop said.
“It doesn’t go into the general fund,” she said. “The town is not stealing money and putting it here. You can look at our budget; you can see where the money goes.”
Defending Pearson’s role in overseeing the town’s financial responsibilities, she invited people to contact him with any questions or concerns.
“If you want to come in and see the town manager, if you want to look at the books, it’s all public information,” she said. “I know the town manager wants to know if something is wrong.”
Pearson agreed, responding to an implication Jordan made that the money collected from bills would be used to pay the mayor’s legal fees in defending himself against a petition filed in September by town residents looking to remove him from office. It hasn’t been decided yet if the town will be responsible for paying the legal fees.
“I understand that there is some distrust in this community currently, and I want you to know that our town staff works very hard and was not a part of anything in that regard,” Pearson said of the mayor’s legal battles. “And we do a good job every day and intend to continue to keep taxpayer dollars safe and accountable.”
Conceding Pearson’s willingness to work on the problem of the town’s water rates, Jordan doubled down on his concern that new residents would be blindsided by bills they cannot anticipate.
Recalling how he spoke to town staff about his bill, he said he was told, “Yep, when you’re new, this is kind of that ‘learn thing.’
“And that’s not right either,” he said. “You’re right, I’m not going to do it again. [But] call me then. … Have the courtesy to call me and say, ‘Mr. Jordan, do you know your bill’s going to be influxing X amount?’ ’Cause had I known, I would have been like, ‘No way.’”
Councilman Ken Cherrix, who received $400 water bills two months in a row after refilling his pool, suggested a policy change to reinforce attempts by the town to contact residents experiencing higher than usual water usage.
Pearson said he’s been talking with town staff about the matter.
“Mr. Jordan, I think your point is abundantly clear to everybody,” Pearson said. “You’re sitting in a room with four policymakers, and they’re hearing you right now. And I think that’s probably your best avenue.”
Bishop thanked Jordan and other residents for bringing their concerns to the committee.
“I appreciate you coming,” she said. “That’s really what the committee structure is for, people to come and, you know, be able to have this dialogue that you can’t have in a council meeting and not as much in a work session.”
“I am sorry it happened to you,” she told Jordan.
Recalling a high water bill she accrued awhile back, she said she also felt blindsided — especially since she makes a practice of educating herself on community and Homeowners Association rules and regulations.
“I don’t water my lawn in the summer anymore,” she said.
Attending the meeting were committee members Bishop, Cherrix and Vena, along with Town Councilwoman Emily Reynolds. Committee member John Massoud was absent.