Water bills too high?

Published 10:51 pm Friday, January 21, 2011

Resident: Truck stop showers cost less

When Michael and Stephanie Boyle opened their first Virginia water bill after moving to Suffolk from California this summer, they were in for a shock.

Stephanie Boyle checks the reading on her water meter Friday. She began tracking the family’s water usage on a spreadsheet after receiving a $668 water bill this summer.

The single-income military couple suddenly had to come up with $668 to pay for two months’ worth of water.

“Who budgets for that?” Stephanie Boyle, a stay-at-home mother, said Friday. “There’s no way we can just divine $600 to pay the water bill.”

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The Boyles are just two of several Mainsail Lane residents who are concerned about high water bills.

A few doors down in the North Suffolk neighborhood, Matt Ramsey and his wife were paying about $650 every two months this summer.

“In the summertime, they were pretty ridiculous,” Ramsey said of the bills. “I came from an apartment, so I knew it would be higher, but not that much higher.”

After Michael Boyle wrote a letter of complaint to the city, the Department of Public Utilities investigated the complaints and concluded the high bills were a result of the irrigation systems installed in most of the yards.

“We were told we had to water our sod,” Stephanie Boyle said.

She and her husband watered their lawn 20 minutes a day every day during their first months there, she said. However, they cut back after the first water bill.

A second shock came, however, with the second bill. It was only about $100 less than the first.

“We had another heart attack,” Boyle said. “It was insanity. Who has that money?”

Boyle began monitoring their usage intensely, checking the water meter in the morning and re-checking it after every water usage — doing laundry, drawing a bath for her son, even washing her hands. She tracked the meter readings on a spreadsheet.

She concluded the lawn watering and baths were definitely the highest usages of water. However, “all of those things just accumulate,” she said.

The Boyles have since begun turning off the water in the shower while they shampoo their hair. They don’t separate colors and whites when doing laundry. And when the water bill comes, they open it together so they can brace each other for the impact.

Michael Boyle showed up at this week’s City Council meeting with his concerns about the high bills. His speech included an anecdotal reference to the Pilot truck stop outside Richmond, where a shower costs only 50 cents. The average shower in a Suffolk home costs 61 cents, he concluded.

However, it doesn’t look like the Boyles, the Ramseys and their neighbors will be getting relief anytime soon. The water and sewer rates are set for the rest of the fiscal year, and as of last year, they were projected to rise again in the coming fiscal year.

The neighbors said they were told the water rates were so high because the utility department has debt from capital improvements. City code requires the utilities department to be self-sustaining in regards to its operating system but allows general funds to be used for capital improvements, including the debt service.