2017-08-24 / Opinion


Higher Water Bills Draining Wallets

Many of us are familiar with the old axiom that the only two things certain in life are death and taxes. Well, you can add a third certainty: utility rate increases.

All across Newport, when this month’s water/sewer bills were opened, the howling began. Not only were the bills higher, but the water, according to many, was undrinkable. (Some may have noticed the brown tinge to the water this week).

While increases are capped at four percent, customers already pay some of the highest rates in the state. We acknowledge that the source of our water is beyond our control; we have shallow reservoirs that are much more susceptible to environmental events, and consequently, our water quality sometimes suffers, particularly in warm weather. We also applaud the efforts the city water company has taken to improve quality by reducing storm water runoff. But at the same time, a rate increase is a rate increase. Not everyone can afford it.

Residents will also soon notice a change in their electric bills. After a hearing on Tuesday, Aug. 22, the Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission approved National Grid's requested 53-percent rate increase. We understand that the cost of business increases every year, but in their filing, there was no mention of increased labor costs or unforeseen expenses to equipment. The increase is based solely on the cost of natural gas that is used to generate much of the electricity in New England.

How did this happen? It is a result of National Grid buying futures or bidding on what the price of gas will be three years in advance. We think that it is time for a new system. Perhaps if we had not been so quick in 2007 to oppose the transport of LNG tankers with natural gas, we would not be faced with the current increase.

Residential electrical users will see a monthly increase of between 17 and 20 percent. If you are on a budget or a fixed income, that is almost a catastrophic event. In their filing to the state, National Grid said "The increase … reflects market dynamics that affect customers all over New England." We agree that it affects customers, but we are not sure that most people would view market dynamics as a reasonable explanation.

Many state and federal government representatives have criticized National Grid and suggested that there be some type of "tiered" payment system or stronger caps on rate increases. That idea is welcomed.

But why not include other utilities as part of that crusade? A 53-percent increase in electricity might actually be less painful for some than a four-percent increase in water bills. The city of Providence is exploring selling its water system to a private company because the cost to run it is so high. But given that National Grid is a non-governmental entity, that's not a good idea, either.

For some people, electricity and drinking water are taken for granted. Both are readily available, seemingly painless to access and don't cause us to ask many questions. We will save for another day discussion of those people who live in parts of the world where clean drinking water is an unfulfilled wish or reliable electricity would seem like a gift from above. The fact is, we should not take either resource for granted.

We hear regularly about this country’s success in becoming energy independent, that fracking is the way of the future. Yet, the rationale for the rate increase from National Grid is simply that they are facing higher costs for natural gas. In our view, that is an insufficient reason for a substantial increase that will negatively impact so many citizens.

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