HOW TO FIX METER RATES
The Method Followed by the Cleveland Water Department.
At one time there were many different opinions held as to the propriety and possibility of enforcing meterage of water. As a rule, there is now little diversity of opinion on the subject, though some still differ as to the rates to be charged. That question continues to be open to discussion, and on it Professor Edward W. Bemis, superintendent of waterworks, Cleveland, Ohio, speaks with authority, as one who has studied the matter very carefully, and managed to satisfy all parties in that city. In his city today there are in use from 40,000 to 45,000 meters— all the house services, large and small, except about 25,000, which are being metered as quickly as possible. Every service calling for a meter larger than five-eighths of an inch is metered— every city building, every schoolhouse, every drinking fountain. He recently adverted to one of the chief considerations, arguing on the principle that, “even in a gravity supply the waste of water is important”—namely, that every ten or twenty years the plant must be extended to reach new sources of supply, if there is a large waste. He holds that the abutting law should pay for the fixed charges, and therein agrees with Mr. Clemens Herschel, of New York city. He quotes Milwaukee, Wis., as a city where this is done in the case of all six-inch mains outside of street intersections, the entire cost being paid for by a special assessment on abutting private property. A recent law enables this to be done in Ohio, and it is being done—as at Lakewood, for instance, a suburb of Cleveland. The reasonableness of this is clear, because the laying of a water main increases the value of the land on the street more than the cost of the pipe. He thinks, however, that, in applying the principle to the assessing of water rates, the difficulty is especially to be considered in the case of large cities that already have their water supply. It looks to him like an admirable system in theory, and one which might work well in the introduction of a plant in a community; but there would be certain difficulties in applying it to a large city like New York or Boston or Philadelphia. There would be the conservatism in the community, the application of a new principle of taxation for waterworks—something different from what the people arc accustomed to, and something with which they are unfamiliar; and, though that is not a fatal objection, he fears it will make the introduction of such a reform viry slow. (In Cleveland they had to face the almost invariable difficulty met with in introducing meters—namely, how to make them popular and, at the same time, how to be able to judge beforehand to some extent, how that introduction would affect the revenue—something which, of course, could not be done at the start. His department has learned since much more than it knew at the time as to how little water is used by the average house consumer. It had had an analysis made of its 30,000 meter bills which were presented for payment in April; and it was found that, excluding about 4,000 large meters, onehalf of all the rest average only 2,000 feet of water in six months, and one-half of that number, or one-fourth of all the residences, average only I.500 feet, the other quarter of the residences averaging 2,500, making one-half, or over it,000— about 12,000 of the residences out of those that had been metered—averaging only 2,000 feet of water. In order to prevent too great a fall in revenue, and yet not interfere too much with the accustomed mode of getting revenue, the Cleveland water department adopted a series of minimums based on the assessment rate. The rates were low anyway to start with, and yet there was wanted a minimum so low that everybody would gain something by having a meter. It would not do, therefore, to have one minimum for fiveeighth-inch meters; but the great problem was how to fix a minimum for five-eighth-inch meters, and yet make it an object for everybody to have a meter, if he were prudent in the use of water. The department adopted four minimums to start with. Those whose annual rates were $4 or less could have a minimum of $2.50, unless they used more water. Of course, if they used more than $2.50 worth of water, they had to pay for it; but they had to pay $2.50 anyway. That was paid in semiannual instalments—$1,25 each six months, For those whose annual assessments were $7 or less, there was a $4 minimum, payable semi-annually. For those whose assessment rates were $10 or less, the minimum was $6, and for all others having a five-eighth-inch meter the minimum was $8. Of course, these particular figures would vary in other cities: but the idea of having four minitnums struck the Cleveland department at the time as, perhaps, the only practical solution of the problem. It has since reduced it from four classes to two, and now has a $2.50 rate for those whose assessment rate is $7 or less, and a $5 rate for all others using a five-eighth-inch meter. The other plan that was considered was the Milwaukee plan. That city has between 30,000 and 40.000 meters— nearly 40,000—which have been put in at the expense of the consumers of late years. There they do not have any minimum; but they charge a dollar a year for reading the meter. That system has its advantages; but the trouble with that, as Professor Bemis thought, was that, if the city is advertising that it is putting in meters for nothing, as Cleveland did, he did not think people would quite understand his turning round and charging them for reading the meter, and he really accomplished the same thing by his minitnums, which actually average two dollars a year for all the house meters in the different classes. So he has accomplished what they have attempted to do in Milwaukee, and at the same time has met the great objection that has been raised by physicians against meters, that people would not use enough water for their health, particularly in the poorer sections of the city, and where there are very hard landlords, for, with the city’s very low water rate of forty cents per 1,000 feet, the minimum of $6 would allow the daily use of 120 gallons, with a meter. In this way every objection was met. Professor Bemis does not consider that scheme as scientific as that suggested by a committee of having fixed charges apportioned by special assessment, either on the entire land, which may be the better way, or on the improved property, which, perhaps, would have to be done as a matter of practical expediency. But it is easier of adoption, and would accomplish a great deal in the way of getting at what those are after in cities that already have adopted the assessment rates, and where it is desirable to introduce meters without waiting for too great a reform in the method of obtaining revenue. He also concludes that this suggestion—to have the fixed charges paid by a special assessment on improved property—is not very different from the proposition that the city should pay the water department a liberal amount for fire protection and water for other public purposes, and should raise this amount out of the general tax levy. That plan would secure money not only from improved property, but from the unimproved, which certainly ought to pay something. That, however, would not interfere with the suggestion he has made—that six-inch mains should be made by special assessment on all the abutting land.