The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

Local and State News

December 6, 2013

Charged up

City may change decades-old policy that inflates landlords' water bills

ENID, Okla. — A long-standing policy that allows Enid to charge utility customers a flat fee for each business inside a building is being called unfair.

As the law is interpreted by the city, a strip mall with four commercial tenants might only have one water meter and utility account in the building owner's name, but the owner will be charged at least the base rate for each "unit" – no matter how much water is used.

Ward 6 Commissioner Dr. David Vanhooser raised the idea earlier this year in hopes that an ordinance can be crafted to change the law. He owns multi-tenant buildings, and the rule was a thorn in his side long before taking office.

"The smaller building's water bill is higher than the bigger building, and uses less water," Vanhooser said. "It just seemed fundamentally unfair to me."

According to the city's published utility rates, commercial properties are charged $19.82 for the first thousand gallons of water they use and the same amount for wastewater they leave. Each additional thousand gallons of water costs less than $3.

That base rate is applied for every separate entity within a structure. The policy also applies to residential properties. Vanhooser said the city knows how many units to charge by visiting the structure in person.

Keith Fowler, owner of Heartland Plaza in the 2500 block of N. Van Buren, said he is charged three base rates for each water meter in his building. On his most recent bill, one of his meters was charged $112.62 for about 1,000 gallons each of water and sewer service.

Another meter in the office complex was charged twice that amount.

"Basically you're baying $200 bucks a month to flush the stool," Fowler said.

He recommends that the city install electronic water meters in each tenant's area and charge them directly for the water they use. Otherwise, he said, Enid still charges him about $20 per month for offices that occasionally go vacant and use no water.

When the Enid City Commission last discussed the issue, Utility Services Manager Scott Morris said that multiple charging units had been on the books since the 1970s, and that other similarly-sized cities share the same policy.

He also noted that if Enid were to abolish the practice outright, there would be a drop in revenue.

"If we were to take all of these units and only charge them one meter base rate for water and sewer, instead of by the number of charging units they have, it would cost the city over $845,000 annually," he said during a Sept. 5 study session.

The city maintains 119 multi-unit commercial accounts, containing a total of 639 charging units.

Vanhooser argues that the city wouldn't lose that much if it instead adopts a compromise. One option he supports is installing larger water meters to businesses that inherently use more water. Vanhooser estimates that the predicted $845,000 loss would be cut in half.

"It's not something we can't do without," he said. "[City Manager Eric] Benson's got the water system down to where it makes money."

At the time the policy was adopted, landlords didn't want to bear the cost of installing multiple meters in one building, Benson said in September.

"They were more than happy to pass that [cost] along to their tenants," he said.

Benson suggested the commission reconsider the policy at a meeting in early 2014, which allows his staff time to craft an ordinance. Vanhooser said he expects the issue could be raised again next month.

"To me, the revenue's not the issue," he said. "It's the fairness."

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