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Cornelius task force: boost water rates on people who use less

For three months, a Cornelius citizens group has been investigating high water bills. Last night, they delivered their recommendations for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities Department. At the top list, they want to raise rates for everyone so that the highest water consumers won't be penalized. The task force is asking the city to roll back the clock on rate changes that were implemented as a result of the drought. "And get rid of that fourth tier," says Cornelius resident Jim Duke, who chaired the volunteer water bill task force. "It's unfair. And it penalizes people that are just trying to make a living, raise a family and put a little water on their grass." "Fourth tier" takes on the bitter taste of a bad word throughout the group's report. They believe it is responsible for many of the water bill water spikes that started surfacing at the end of last summer. The system was set up after the drought to encourage people to conserve water. The more you use, the more you pay. The rates are cumulative. You start off paying the lowest rate of a $1.45 per 748 gallons. That continues until you use 3,000 gallons. Then, a slightly higher rate kicks in for the next 3,000 gallons, and the next 3,000 after that until you hit the f-word: the fourth tier. At that point, which is anything over 12,000 gallons, you're paying a base rate of $5.32. And that's twice the rate of the tier just below it. Basically, Cornelius Mayor Jeff Tarte says CMUD's relying too much on big water users. Cornelius mayor speaks with WFAE's Scott Graf about the citizen task force report. Listen "What has to happen is at the lower - the 1st and 2nd tier which is the majority of homeowners - have to pay the cost of the service," says Tarte. "Right now they're being subsidized. They're not paying the cost of the service." So, if the big water users start conserving a lot of water because their bills are too high, the task force says CMUD will run out of money. Jim Duke says it would smarter and fairer to raise rates in the lower tiers. Even if that means those users see a spike in their water bills. "They may," admits Duke. "But I will also be paying that increase because I'm also a lower user. We're not saying we don't want to pay. We're saying everybody should pay." Interim Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities director Barry Gullett was in the audience for the report presentation along with about 30 other elected officials and concerned citizens. But Gullet didn't have much to say: "We're gonna go through this. We're gonna read it and understand it. And then we'll be glad to talk with you a little bit later, okay?" CMUD has spent the last two months investigating the more than 1,000 complaints of high bills that poured in once word spread of the spike in Cornelius. When former CMUD director Doug Bean retired last month, he submitted his own recommendations to the city manager. Like the task force, Bean said the utilities department needs to improved customer service and replace aging meter technology. And though he defended the new rate structure in his report, Bean did say the recent uproar will probably force the city to revisit that fourth tier.