June 19, 2014: Is “Town of Homes” image real?

Belmont Citizen Herald: June 19, 2014

A Town of Homes.  How many times have you heard that description applied to Belmont?  What image does that phrase conjure up in your mind?

Too frequently, the image conveyed is of a community of single-family detached homes.  That image is wrong.  In Belmont, out of roughly 9,600 housing units, nearly 3,200 are two-family units.  Another 950 are three- and four-family units, though the count of triple-deckers is not separately tracked by the Census Bureau.

If the error was only one of image, perhaps it would not make much difference in the real world.  Unfortunately, however, public policy is too often developed based on that erroneous image.  And it is costing people real money.

One such problem lies in Belmont’s water rates.  Belmont has what is called an “inclining block rate structure” for its water rates.  That phrase says that the price people are charged for water increases as their water usage increases.  Belmont customers pay $5.68 per hundred cubic feet (CCF) for the first 30 CCF of water used, and pay $6.53 per CCF for all consumption over 30 CCF.  The average Belmont household consumes about 20 CCF of water per month.

In many ways, the inclining block rate makes sense.  Increasing the price of water as usage goes up gives people an economic incentive to conserve.  If reducing your water consumption will lower the price you pay, people will more likely engage in reasonable water conservation efforts (e.g., not running the faucet while brushing teeth; fixing running toilets and dripping faucets).

Using the inclining block rate to promote water conservation, however, does not make sense when applied to a double- or triple-decker home.  In Belmont, most double- and triple-decker homes are on one meter and receive only one bill for the entire house rather than having a separate meter for each unit in the house. As a result, each bill is based on the combined usage of multiple families rather than on the individual usage of each separate housing unit.

When the inclining block rate is applied to these homes, therefore, the higher rate is triggered almost automatically, not because the families are high users, but rather because the usage of two (or more) families is being added together before the higher price is applied.  That’s not fair.

The solution to the immediate inequity is simple.  I am currently working as a consultant in an electric rate case in Minnesota, proposing an inclining block rate for Xcel Energy, a large multi-state electric utility. To avoid inequities to multi-unit buildings, we have recommended that Xcel follow the lead of Minnesota Power, its sister utility, in increasing the first block of usage in proportion to the number of units in a home when a multi-family unit is served with one meter.

In Belmont, that would mean simply that where the town serves a double-decker with one meter, the higher rates wouldn’t be charged until after 60 CCF (2 units x 30 CCF/unit); the limit for a triple-decker would be 90 CCF.  Our Board of Selectmen should make this simple change in Belmont’s water rates starting in the coming year.

The bigger problem needs more active attention.  The bigger problem in Belmont involves the inequities that arise when our policymakers act as if the single-family image conveyed by the phrase “A Town of Homes” adequately reflects reality. Until that changes, residents of Belmont’s double- and triple-deckers will too often face policies, such as those embedded in the unnecessarily high water rates, that do not adequately recognize, let alone address, their needs.

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