Judging by the green lawn and lush planting beds surrounding Kenneth Martin’s Town of Tonawanda home, you’d never know that northern Erie County is suffering from drought.
The evidence is in his quarterly water/sewer bill.
In May, the Parkhurst Boulevard resident was charged $37.95 for water and $26.29 for sewer. The most recent bill, due later this month, has water charges of $235.29 and $169.69 for sewer.
It’s a perennial issue for Martin, a 36-year resident who said he doesn’t mind paying more for the water to keep his landscape thriving. The sewer charges are another story.
“I’m being charged for something that’s not being used,” a frustrated Martin told the Town Board this week. “I don’t use it; it stays on the lawn.”
Vito Lobalsamo of Parker Boulevard called The Buffalo News with the same complaint.
“Every summer, they’ve been taking my money under false pretenses,” said Lobalsamo, a resident of 22 years who acknowledges using a lot of water during summer months to maintain his lawn.
Lobalsamo said his quarterly bill went from $34.50 for water and $23.90 for sewer in May to $148.35 and $102.77, respectively, in August.
“This $102 bill really woke me up," he said.
Both residents want town officials to find a way to separately calculate sewer charges, which now are based solely on water consumption.
“We don’t have a better way. We are virtually doing what everybody else is doing because there is no better way to do it,” said Ken Maving, director of water resources for the town.
The town operates its own water and sewage treatment plants, and the Town Board votes on the rates. Bills also include a fixed capital improvement fee, now at $5.85 a quarter.
It wouldn’t be practical to install sewerage meters on the roughly 22,000 homes in the town, Maving said. “The cost of that would be astronomical,” he said.
As it stands, the deteriorating condition of sewer lines is behind the multidecade, townwide overhaul of the sanitary sewer system, which is entering its second phase this month.
“It’s not perfect, but in our mind it’s as fair as it can be,” Maving said of the billing system. At the Town Board’s direction, he has been asking around about how sewer billing is handled elsewhere.
The Town of Amherst, which also has its own sewage treatment facility, calculates its fees through a combination of water usage, assessed value and frontage.
Many suburbs are served by Erie County sewer districts.
“Not all of our sewer districts utilize water usage as part of the formula,” said Joel Fiegl, deputy commissioner of sewerage management. Of the seven districts, two use water consumption in residential billing: District 6, which is the City of Lackawanna, and District 8, which encompasses the Village of East Aurora and a small part of the Town of Aurora.
Fiegl said the others, in general, use formulas that include a base charge and the assessed value and frontage of individual properties.
“Every single district is a little bit different,” Fiegl said. “All of them use assessed value as a part of the formula.”
Meters to record sewage flow are used only by some of the very large commercial and industrial users, Fiegl said. For residential properties, he added, installing sewer meters “would be very cost-prohibitive."