Saline Utility Bills "A Hell of a Hit to Take," Payment Deadline Extended

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Residents of the City of Saline filled up the city council chamber Monday night to voice anger and dismay at the jacked-up utility bills that arrived in the mail this month.

"This is going to hurt people," said longtime resident Mike Brown. "This is going to hurt people who want to move into the area and start a family. And it's going to hurt people on fixed incomes - especially the elderly. It's going to hurt me when I retire."

Brown said the bills are too much, too fast.

"It's like smacking someone in the face. It's a hell of hit to take. People are on fixed incomes. We also have inflation, which is hurting people left and right," Brown said. "We have to find other areas to pay for this."

Brown was one of many who spoke out at the usually quiet town council meeting.

In May,Council voted 5-2 to approve the higher rates for water and sewer service. The vote came after months of very public discussion.

Rates are rising, for the most part, because of the $64 million wastewater treatment plant upgrade - and then a $20 million project expected in 2027-28. the wastewater treatment plant improvement is required by the State of Michigan as a result of an Administrative Court Order after environmental violations at Saline's plant.

While the water rates and fees are climbing - most of the damage is on the sewer side of the bill.

Despite warnings in the newsmedia, on social media and in the city's FYI newsletter, residents seemed shocked by their first look at the 2022-23 utility bills. Perhaps that's because some residents saw their bills rise even more than promised.

Jeff and Michelle Shier live in a two-person household in the Wildwood subdivision. Normally the city bills the Shiers about $230 a quarter. Their bill rose to $1,200 for this quarter.

They were billed for 62,000 gallons this year. Usually, they are billed for 10-15,000 in a quarter. Jeff Shier said there was no change in usage at his home. He wondered if the new water meters are responsible for the high count.

"I would believe that the water meters have not been being read properly for a long time, and that now, we are just finally getting the balance billing," Shier told council.

On water issues, Shier has had very little success dealing with the city. A link to information about the new meter program didn't work, Shier said. In addition,  he was told by his plumber that the city's recent initiative to end cross contamination had the city asking residents to go above and beyond code.

And, Shier said, he spent Monday trying to find anyone in city government to talk to about his utility bill.

Between the rising rates, the new "more accurate" readers, and a quarterly billing season that features high usage due to irrigating lawns and gardening, it was difficult to make sense of some of the issues.

In addition, there were other oddities. For example, three different individuals confirmed to council that they were billed $486.32. What are the odds of three people with the same utility bill attending the council meeting?

"I don't think that's a coincidence," said Josh Sager, who lives on North Harris Street with his family.

"Costs are going up. The grocery bill is $100 more a week. You're putting another $200 in your gas tank. This hits hard for a family," Sager said. "It impacts the monthly budget for a house."

Shelly Andrews lives in the Torwood Subdivision. She runs sprinklers in the summer. Last year, for the summer billing cycle, she was billed $700. This year, her bill was $1300.

"For water? $3000 a year? Are you kidding me? I'm not watering my lawn," she told council.

She told council that it seems like the city has mismanaged its infrastructure and failed to properly forecast and plan.

"This is crazy. I mean, I can afford to pay this but I don't want to pay that. I don't want to pay $20,000 just to live in Saline with my taxes and my water," Andrews said.

Canterbury Drive resident Toby Crotty said these bills are going to price him out of Saline.

"I live in a very small, older neighborhood and this city is pricing me out of being able to spend my retirement and my wife's retirement in this town," Crotty told council.

Crotty follows the local news. He was expecting an $80 increase. Instead, it went up $160. And then, Crotty said, he must digest that rates are projected to rise by a similar amount next year and then continue to rise at a slower pace (SEE PAGE FIVE IN THE GRAPHS BELOW)

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"I am thoroughly disgusted with this whole process because in my opinion, this is a result of years and years of neglect on the city government's behalf of managing the maintenance of our infrastructure," Crotty said.

Former city water department employee Erik Grossman addressed council and explained that many residents are being overbilled for sewer service. For the most part, most residents are billed for the same number of gallons on the water and sewer side of things. So if your house took 10,000 gallons of water last quarter, you'll get billed for 10,000 gallons of water and 10,000 gallons of sewer service. But in the summer months especially, a lot of water never goes into the sewer.  For this reason, the summer billing cycle is always the most contentious.

"The city receives funding for a sewer process that doesn't actually take place," Grossman said.

In the past, the city addressed this by taking the average consumption in the other quarters and then using that number for the summer cycle.

So if you're utility bill was for 15,000 gallons for three quarters and 25,000 gallons in the summer, you'd only be charged for 15,000 gallons of sewer service in the summer quarter bill. Many towns, including Ann Arbor, still use this idea. In Saline, this technique was replaced when the city began offering optionally purchased residential, sprinkler meters.

Grossman advised returning to something like the old system.

City staff and council couldn't adequately explain the factors which led to bills being higher than expected. Councillor Janet Dillon said she regretted implementing the new rates during the high-demand quarter.

Mayor Brian Marl said he recently talked with US Sen. Gary Peters about getting an EPA  grant that could help the city knock millions off the price tag for wastewater treatment plant improvements, and therefore lower the utility rates. But, Marl said, it was imperative city residents call Sen. Peters and other elected representatives and apply pressure for the federal assistance.

Councillor Jim Dell'Orco echoed Marl's call before expressing his disappointment in the utility rate study provided to the city last year. Dell'Orco said residents were coming to the city with bills much higher than Baker Tilly projected.

"I have grave concern that this council may have been sold a bill of goods and persuaded to vote a certain way based on projections that were untrue," Dell'Orco said.

Dell'Orco, like Marl, voted against the utility rates in May.

"It's an insurmountable burden on middle-class people that are ill able to afford these changes. It's simply a percentage that is too high and I will continue to lobby on your behalf," Dell'Orco said.

After Dell'Orco reiterated his support for his "no" vote in May, Councillor Dean Girbach supported his "yes" vote.

Girbach asked City Manager Colleen O'Toole to explain why the city council needed to raise rates and demonstrate it could pay for the wastewater treatment plant improvements.

"We are under a specific timeline for the administrative consent order that we entered with the State of Michigan," O'Toole said.

Girbach implied the city's rates were too low, for too long, which may be one reason for the high costs facing Saline today.

Answering a question from Councillor Girbach, O'Toole said she agreed that if you look at the history of the water and wastewater treatment plants, there was not nearly enough time or money committed to maintaining and repairing equipment.

Girbach said when the plant was built, federal funds helped city residents foot the bill. He said the state and federal governments have not helped the city since, and now the city has to address the issue.

"We're at a point now where we cannot look at this as being something that we can put off," Girbach said. "The reality is we have to pay for what we have. We're not building for the developers, we're building for our community to move forward. We need to have this fixed," Girbach said.

Girbach said the citiy's water rates are still 20 percent lower than they are in surrounding towns.

Councillor Jack Ceo noted there were three other utility-related expenses on the agenda.

"It's not that we're trying to spend money frivolously. We're faced with increasing demands at increasing rates of cost to get these very things done," Ceo said.

There were no silver bullet answers from city council or city staff. At the request of Mayor Marl, council agreed to extend the deadline for bill payment until Dec. 1.

But that answer was less than satisfactory for some.

"It's still a punch in the gut, whether it's November or December," Crotty said. "It's still a freaking punch in the gut and it just puts us closer to that next bill. So what does that solve? Nothing."

Residents with low incomes get assistance with their utility bills through a Washtenaw County Program. 

If you suspect your meter reading is wrong, call the Saline DPW at (734) 429-5624.

For questions about your bill, call the city treasurer's office at 429-4907 ext 2203.

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Salt Springs Brewery was also shocked and called the city right after receiving our bill, assuming it had to be a big mistake.   Our bill is 3x the normal cost.  They also reported our usage at 1.6 times our average.  We have not done anything more than normal use-wise.   So incredibly frustrating. 

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Have you contacted your state and federal legislators about getting the city help in paying for the wastewater treatment plant? Someone like you would have clout with them. The increase in the bill is due to the plant, and when I looked, my water rates are pretty normal, but the sewer costs took a steep increase. I do think there is an issue when a number of neighbors have the exact same bill. Makes you wonder what is going on there. The sad part is seniors and others on a fixed income will be hurt the most.

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