Let the Citizens Know What the Water Works Really Does
Charleston Superintendent Argues That This Is Wisest Policy—Also That Quarterly Collections Are the Best and Most Practical Method
COMPARISONS are always interesting and particularly so when applied to the subject of the expense of water supply as compared with the other necessaries of life. The following paper, written in Mr. Gibson’s usually thorough manner in arguing primarily for the adoption of quarterly collections as compared with monthly is full of valuable and interesting information on the subject of water rates, collections, finances, etc.
The public is, generally speaking, fair in its judgments, particularly when a case is properly presented to it. In making these observations, I hope to present the water department side so that the public may have a perfect and thorough understanding of our position.
There is no branch of municipal service that receives greater condemnation in cases of failure to function adequately or properly than the water works. The slightest tendency of the water to be off color, off taste or otherwise lacking in quality or quantity, raises a storm of protest from the consumers, and the presentation of a bill that is higher than is usual or expected, will raise protestations that echo long after the rendering and settlement of the bill.
Generally speaking, when we desire a commodity we buy without regard to the cost or value of the article itselt. We all love to pamper ourselves, but the moment a service or commodity becomes a necessity, we take a niggardly attitude toward the party furnishing the service and all thought is lost of equity or justice in respect to the amount to be paid for the service rendered or for the commodity itself. Particularly is this so when the commodity enters into our daily life, such as gas, electric light and water supply service.
Some Interesting Comparisons
I have prepared two tables showing the comparative cost of some of the staples and luxuries entering into the everydaylife of the average family.
Table No. 1 gives the daily and weekly cost and the quarterly cost contrasted with that of the water supplied to an ordinary family where good modern plumbing is installed and a reasonable care is exercised in maintaining the plumbing fixtures in good condition.
Table No. 2 shows the comparative cost of some of the articles of commerce contracted with the cost of water based upon the cost of transportation alone.
What the Water Works Does for the Citizen
It will be noted from these tables that it is possible for the average family:
First—To obtain a supply of 135 gallons of water per day for household and domestic purposes for practically what it costs the head of the family to get his collars laundered, or to take himself and wife to the movies once a week.
Secondly—That the water department will deliver to the citizens of the community a ton of water at the extremely low figure of b cents per ton. and not as the postman, coal dealer or groceryman during a limited time, but will commence delivery at any minute of the day or night that the consumer sees tit to demand it by simply opening the spigot on his premises.
How often docs a citizen call on the telephone only to be told that “the line is busy” or it is “out of order” and it will be necessary for him to call later? Or, how long does he wait on the corner for a street car? Our patience seems to be very great in respect to this class of service, but let the water service be shut off for a few minutes and at the time the consumer demands the service, and he seems never to forget the circumstances and will keep the water department advised for months afterward of this failure in its service.
Originally Flat Rate Was Charged
When public water supplies were first introduced, the rate or amount to he paid by each property or household was assessed at a flat rate or charge in an effort to divide up the cost of the operation and maintenance of the water works plant among those using the service.
This flat rate is a heritage of the early pioneers and was probably first introduced by Appius Claudius in Rome. There were no modern plumbing appliances as we know them today, and therefore, the use of water was confined principally to the ordinary household uses of cooking and washing. This flat rate system winks at the extravagance and wastefulness of the individual at the expense of the public It is admittedly inequitable, conducive to wasteful habits and poor plumbing. The rate is made higher or in excess of the legitimate amount in an effort to cover these abuses. This form of rate today is frowned upon by all water works men, utility commissions and the courts.
Much Attention Paid to Rate Making
Rate making has received more attention in the last fifteen years than in all the previous history of the water works business. In fact, it received very little attention until the introduction of the modern water meter. There are today three general forms of rates for metered water, they are:
- —The flat or uniform rate system where the water is charged for at a stipulated price without regard to the quantity used or service rendered.
- —A minimum demand rate and sliding scale for water used in excess of minimum.
- —A service and demand charge rate with sliding scales for water used.
The objection to the first form, the flat or uniform charge, is that it does not distribute the burden equitably upon the consumers. It permits a property to obtain valuable service and puts a premium upon the penurious use of water.
The privilege of having a connection and being able to obtain water from a public supply on demand is valuable and should be paid for. The cost of reading meters, recording the same and rendering bills is a substantial cost and is practically uniform without regard to the size of the meter or the quantity of water taken. Further there is no demand charge included in this form of rate, and certainly the water works is entitled to payment based upon the capacity of the consumer to demand service. As an example: A small manufacturing concern, such as a laundry requiring the delivery of llarge quantities of water in a limited time, must have a larger meter than a house. This class of consumer draws only for a few minutes at a time, nevertheless, requires a greater capacity of pumping machinery, filters and mains to meet this demand. The 2-inch meter on the supply to the laundry has the capacity of twenty 5/8-inch house meters, and therefore, equitably, it should pay twenty times the demand charge of the house.
Service and Demand Charge Rate Most Scientific
The third schedule is the most scientific, in that it successfully divides the service rendered into the proper divisions:
- —The cost of reading the meters, recording, billing and accounting.
- —It places a demand charge on each consumer in proportion to his ability to demand water, and
- —It places a charge upon the consumer for the quantity of water taken, in accordance with a sliding scale based upon the actual quantity of water used.
Some Abuses Which Had Crept In
The commission took over the operation of the plant at the time of purchase by the city in 1917. Abuses had grown up during these years of private ownership, since the granting of the franchise to the private company in 1903, due to political and other conditions. Sixty per cent, of the consumers were obtaining water through meters, some having yearly contracts, others monthly contracts. Those having yearly contracts were granted the privilege of offsetting high consumption during one period of the year against low consumption at another period. Those having monthly contracts were denied this privilege, which caused friction and discontent. The remaining forty per cent, of the consumers were being supplied under the old flat rate system of contract.
An analysis of the total water pumped and delivered to the distribution system and a systematic reading of the small meters supplying the metered consumers, showed that the forty per cent, of unmetered consumers were using over sixty per cent, of the total water pumped. A census of the city of the number of dwellings therein showed that there were approximately 12,000 properties that should he consumers of water and of these 12,000 there were existing on the books only 6,500 consumers of water. How and where did the remaining 5,500 properties get their water supply? There were two sources, wells and cisterns which bad been condemned by the Health Department as insanitary and likely to cause sickness and epidemics, and secondly, a surreptitious taking of water through the taps of neighboring properties. A large percentage of these properties not connected to the water works system were owned or at least occupied by the colored population.
Municipal Ownership an Experiment
The question of municipal ownership and operation was a doubtful experiment, and in my opinion, our commission wisely decided to disturb the customs and rates in force to the least possible extent, and therefore adopted our present schedule of rates. These, while not the most scientific, are equitable and just.
- —We discarded the yearly contract feeling that it was not equitable, and if required, and not enforced, would grow into an abuse.
- —That a three months’ contract was equitable and imposed no grievous hardship, should circumstances compel one to surrender his contract after a few weeks of servioe, as the minimum charge of $3 would not more than cover the cost of setting meter, removing same, reading and hilling for a short period.
- —It would permit those people who spend the summers away from the city to close their houses, cancel their contracts and have the water shut off, thus eliminating the danger of high bills due to leaky plumbing during their absence. It further gave them the possibility of equalizing the low consumption during one month as against high consumption during another month of the same quarter.
Minimum Rate Provides Water at $3 a Quarter
The minimum rate provides an ample supply of water to cover all legitimate needs of the average family without offering a premium on a parsimonious use of this essential commodity. In other words, it is possible for the average family in the city of Charleston to have all the conveniences of modern plumbing, such as kitchen sink, toilet, bathroom, basins and an ample supply of water for $3 a quarter, further, it places this service within the reach of the most humble citizen.
That this action on the part of the commission was wise is evidenced from the satisfaction it has afforded. Consumers have increased from a little over 6,500 to over 9,000 in the five years of municipal ownership. The entire city has been metered, the amount of water accounted for has increased from 55 per cent, in 1917 to an average of 85 per cent in 1921-1922. The difference is accounted for by the water used for municipal sewer flushing and fire purposes. This percentage of accounted for water is above the average American cities, and is exceeded by a few only.
The only complaint that has been made against the schedule as adopted is the payment .of high bills owing to defective or poor plumbing, and some of our citizens feel that if the water department should read meters and bill monthly, they could thereby check up and keep tab on the condition of their plumbing more accurately than if read quarterly.
In an effort to ascertain how far this contention is borne out by facts, the department has analyzed a total of 116,025 meter bills rendered during the period from February 15, 1919, to November 15, 1922, and the result of this analysis is shown in Table No. 3.
Ten Dollars Per Quarter Reasonable Bill
In considering this table, two questions at once arise, what is a reasonable bill and what is a high hill? We do not propose to define this as it will vary for every citizen and for every household in the city. We do, however, fee! that a quarterly bill of $10 (equivalent to a daily charge of 11 cents) for so useful a commodity as water is not exorbitant, especially when reference is made to the tabulated statements of articles entering into our daily life, as given m Tables Nos. 1 and 2.
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Let Citizens Know What Water Works Does
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Assuming that the amount of $10 per quarter is not an exorbitant charge for water, it will be seen that 95.98 per cent, of all bills rendered during the four-year period considered, is $10 or less per quarter. It will be noted that for the newer sections of the city, Districts Nos. 7, 8 and 9, 98 per cent of the bills are $10 or less, that in the oldest section of the city, south of Broad Street, 93.37 per cent, of the bills are within this classification, that in the central section of the city from Calhoun to Broad Street, the average is 95 per cent., and in the northern central section of the city, the average is approximately 96 per cent.
This is as we would have expected. Districts 1, 2 and 3 being the older portion of the city, it was necessarily the first to be supplied with water and plumbing. It is the most densely populated and a number of the buildings have been remodeled into apartment houses, the more modern being equipped with a large number of bath and toilet rooms. This latter class of fixture is usually responsible for 98 per Cent of the high bills. In the newer section of the city the houses are smaller and more compactly built and contain modern plumbing in all respects, and of more recent installation, all of which is conducive to a higher efficiency of maintenance and a lower rate of water consumption.
Bills Reach High Figure Before Increase Is Noted
It has been noted and remarked upon by the employees of the department, having to do with the complaints and high bills, that the consumer does not fully avail himself of the experience and information obtained when a leak occurs or a high bill is rendered, but permits the condition to continue, sometimes for two or three quarters until the consumption reaches many times the normal or reasonable amount.
In an effort to confirm this, an analysis was made of sixteen properties of known high consumption. This analysis is set out in Table No. 4. In explanation of this table, let me say that as the normal consumption varied for each of these properties, each has been considered as a unit and the normal consumption for property taken as 100 per cent., and everything in excess as a percentage of the normal. Where the consumption was below normal, it is recorded as normal upon the hypothesis that local conditions during that quarter were not normal.
It will be noted that this table justifies the sub-conscious deduction of our employees, that consumers pay little attention to their increasing water bills until they reach a very high percentage of the normal consumption, and even then do not take the necessary precaution to see that their plumbing is properly repaired, as is evidenced by a second and third period of abnormal consumption.
How much less attention will be paid to the increasing consumption when the readings are made monthly, and the increased increments therefore smaller? Further, a leak amounting to so little as one gallon per minute taking place in a yard toilet (usually installed for the convenience of servants, and therefore not directly under observation of the thoughtful members of the family), will account for a bill of $10.50 in thirty days.
Using the information obtained from Table No. 3. and assuming that $10 is a reasonable and not an exorbitant bill and that the arithmetical mean of these divisions represent the average amount of money involved in each bill, we find that the following bills were rendered in excess of $10 per quarter:
2,983 Bills rendered for an average amount of $12.50
961 Bills rendered for an average amount of 17.50
382 Bills rendered for an average amount of 22.52
375 Bills rendered for an average amount of 37.50
64 Bills rendered not in excess of 75.00
Using the limit of a non-exorbitant bill as $10 per quarter, and the information contained in Table No. 4. together with the possibility of a small leak, as hereinbefore mentioned, it is a reasonable and fair conclusion that there would be no saving effected to consumers where their bills are only 150 per cent, in excess of $10 or $15 per quarter.
Again, assuming that every dollar in excess of this maximum bill of $15 could have been saved the consumer, we find the following:
The above assumptions are certainly liberal and I feel that practically they cannot be obtained, owing to the frailties of human nature, and knowing how soon we lose sight of the newness of the “broom.” However, the consumer is fully entitled to the benefit of the doubt in the case.
Duties of the Commission to the Public
The next phase of the subject is, how much will it cost all of the consumers to effect this saving to one and fiftyfour hundredths per cent, of the consumers? Before proceeding to this portion of the discussion, let us consider some of the duties of the commission to the public.
It is undoubtedly the duty of the commission to operate the waterXworks plant efficiently:
1—As to quality of the water.
(a) For drinking and cooking purposes.
(b) For laundry and general household use.
(c) For manufacturing purposes.
2—As to the quantity of water.
(a) For sanitary purposes.
(b) For fire protection.
3—As to extension of mains and conduits and plant to supply the grow-
ing needs of the city (for without an adequate water supply no city can grow, however fortunate she may be otherwise situated and endowed.)
4—Economically upon a business basis.
(a) That the citiiens may be taxed equitably and justly for the sendee rendered them ami that none receive privileges not enjoyed by all.
(h) That all moneys due be collected promptly and all purchases of material and supplies he honestly made at lowest obtainable prices, quality alone for service intended being considered.
(c) That all expenses of operation, maintenance. sinking fund, interest and bonded indebtedness or cost of plant be paid from the income collected and that any excess income above these expenses be set aside as a surplus out of which future extensions, improvements to plant and water supply facilities shall be made.
(d) To employ an efficient personnel to conduct the operations of the business with the least number of persons that there may be a minimum of inefficiency, soldiering, slackness and indifference.
Added Expense of Monthly Readings
It is well recognized that the most efficient organization is the one having the smallest personnel to accomplish the work with accuracy and despatch. With our present system of quarterly reading, the work Iras been so systematized that each employee has a definite portion of the work to perform, and each is thoroughly acquainted with the work of the other members of the organization, with the result that there is thorough team work. There is a minimum number of units in each division of the work, and, therefore, the responsibility for error can be placed directly upon the one at fault. This has resulted in a very high degree of efficiency, and it will be necessary if monthly reading of meters is adopted, to increase the number of employees, with the consequent and inevitable loss in efficiency due to increased number.
Should we adopt monthly reading of meters, we estimate that it will require the following additional employees:
An assistant to the contract and new business clerk,
Three additional meter readers.
Three additional clerks in the accounting department.
One additional man for shutting off and turning on water.
Further, stationery supplies such as bill heads, delinquent notices, etc., will be increased three-fold.
The cost of postage for delivery of bills will he increased three-fold.
The general expense in the office for ledger cards, addressograph plates and inter-department stationery will be increased three-fold; and to accomplish the work with the increased force, it will be necessary to install an additional mechanical bookkeeping machine.
We estimate the increased cost of this additional help and equipment as follows;
It will be seen, therefore, that to effect a saving of $4,700 per annum to one and one-half per cent, of our consumers, it will be necessary that all of the consumers spend a total of $12,540 per annum. Certainly an inefficient method of saving.
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Of course, it will be argued by some, that as the department is earning money in excess of its operating expenses, maintenance, depreciation and sinking fund, and as the property is owned by the public, this additional cost of reading meters monthly should not be considered. We contend that this is a false premise, and that it is the duty of the commission to operate the plant efficiently for all, and that if ninety-eight and one-half per cent, of the people are taxed a sum ever so small for the benefit of the one and one-half per cent., then some are receiving special consideration.
Re Reading Likely to Become Abused
The department is endeavoring to help all consumers and to this extent reading meters and inspecting premises to aid and assist the consumers in locating their troubles. This service, however, instead of proving beneficial to the consumer, seems to be leading in an opposite direction in that requests for the re-reading of meters and inspection of premises for leaks are increasing, and further, some of the consumers seem to think that it is one of the duties of the water department to locate defective plumbing, and unless the department can locate the cause of the high consumption of water, they take the position that it is the fault of the department and they should be relieved of the excessive bill.
A record of the re-reading of meters during the past four months shows that 10 per cent, of the meters regularly read have been re-read on request of the consumer, and in addition thereto over four hundred inspections were made at the request of property holders to determine whether their plumbing was leaking. This re-reading and inspection service is likely to become an abuse in that property holders do not take the ordinary precaution to watch the service and fixtures themselves.
Duty of Individual Consumer to Watch for Leaks
The plumbing and fixtures of a house are a part of the consumer’s property and should be taken care of and watched by him the same as any of the other manifold household operations. If care and prudence are not exercised the fixtures become a “thief in the night,” or the same as a careless and wasteful servant.
The meter is a comparatively simple device and as installed is readily accessible and easily read, and an inspection of the meter by the house-holder will readily determine whether leaks exist. Upon the development of a leak the remedy is to employ a plumber to repair the plumbing and after he has done his work it is a very simple matter to test out the thoroughness of his work by watching the meter for a few moments when no water is being drawn from any of the fixtures.
The matter of leaking fixtures and service pipes was amply expressed by our Mayor in his address to our Aldermen as follows: “The duty, therefore, is put up to the individual to watch his fixtures and see that there are no leaks, just as the individual is supposed to do with his health.”
Results of Questionnaire to Other Cities
In an effort to determine the custom as to meter reading interval a questionnaire was mailed to thirty-two cities located in the southeastern portion of the United States and replies were received from twenty-one including ourselves. The result of this questionnaire is given in Table No. 5.
Similar information was obtained and tabulated from the annual reports of the twelve northern cities, and is given in Table No. 6.
It will be noted from the information received from the southern cities that monthly and quarterly reading of meters are about equally divided, a slight preponderance are at present using monthly readings. Some of the managers who are now reading monthly prefer quarterly reading and some who are now reading quarterly, prefer monthly reading.
The northern cities seem to prefer quarterly reading almost unanimously. One city reads semi-annually and bills annually.
We are very much of the opinion that the question of reading meters, as adopted by any community, is one of custom and history than otherwise, but where the matter has been gone into with a view of obtaining the most economical operation of the entire system that the reading of meters oftener than quarterly is inefficient and expensive.
Summing Up Arguments Pro and Con
In summarizing the arguments for and against monthlyreading and billing, we have:
Argument in Favor of Monthly Reading
- —Possibility of an estimated saving of $4,700 per annum to consumers.
- —Possibility of catching a leak before the amount of the bill has reached an exorbitant or excessive charge.
- —The possibility of enabling an individual property holder to check up on the condition of his plumbing.
Argument Against Monthly Reading
- —Increased cost to the department of $12,500 per annum.
- —The above expenditure protects less than two per cent, of the whole at the expense of all.
- —Increased number of employees and office force with lower efficiency.
- —Increased probability of error, with increased number of requests and complaints from consumers for re-reading.
- —Increased complaints as to frequency of bills and requests that bills be sent not oftener than once a quarter, causing confusion in office routine.
- —Increased complaints of consumers on account of receipt of delinquent notices and the shutting off of water in case of non-payment of bills.
- —Increase in complaints due to the short period which consumers will have to average up their high or peak consumption. (With quarterly readings, we now have a number of requests that consumers he allowed to make up their excess bills accruing one quarter with deficiencies of the past quarter.)
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Let Citizens Know What Water Works Does
- —Will necessitate a revision of our rules and regulations which have been fairly well established and understood during the past five years of operation.
- —Reduces the credit extended consumers. (At present, a consumer has an average credit of approximately 60 days, whereas with monthly reading this would have to be abolished and bills would necessarily have to be paid not later than the 15th of each month.)
- —Would he a change of custom without a definite assurance of any improvement.
That the quarterly reading of meters and billing for water used has met the requirements of efficient management goes without saying, as is evidenced by the five years of successful operation at Charleston. We passed through the trying time of the World War without an increase in rates for water service when many other water departments throughout the country were forced to raise their rates and issue bonds for increased facilities. We have not only met all of these conditions, but also have brought the plant front a run down, inefficient condition to a state of high efficiency, making many necessary and permanent improvements, so that today we have a water works system in which every citizen can take pride.
We are not averse to changes if they show a possibility of improvement. We are, however, firm believers in conservatism, especially in the matter of the municipal operation of water works system, and feel that the public should rely upon the business ability and good judgment of their commission as to the best business policy and rhe management of the water department.
(Excerpts from paper read before annual convention of the Southeastern Water and Light Association.)
Urbana Water Supply Getting Low—The water supply of Lrbana, Ill., is getting less each year, according to a statement of Superintendent Link Burnham of the water department, and the unusual amount of waste of water by domestic consumers may soon result seriously. The superintendent has called attention to the fact that many of the water users are allowing gallons of water to waste through the faucets and that unless there is an appreciable lessening of the water waste every consumer will be compelled to go on the meter plan instead of the flat rate plan now in force. At present the water in the city wells is five feet below normal.
Fishing Good When Spartanburg Reservoir Is Cleaned —The reservoir at the Spartanburg Water Works plant was drained recently of its ten million gallons of water for the purpose of clearing the basin of mud. Two years ago this reservoir was drained, and at the time considerable fish were caught. This time, however, less than a bushel and a half were bagged, none of them larger than a man’s hand. Sport was good, despite the shortage of fish, and hankers, merchants, lawyers and doctors vied in wading around in the mud and scooping up or harpooning fish and snapping turtles. Spartanburg receives its water supply from Chinquapin creek, and the fish in the reservoir are those running in from the creek.