Friday, May 31, 2013

Time for a Turnaround

It’s hard to believe that the Red Sox of tonight are less than a year removed from the sullen, whiny and losing team of 2012. Once again there are real “clubhouse guys” i.e. those bench guys who are part understudy, part cheerleader and they seem happy to be there cheering everyone on. Seeing players -- whose names meant nothing to me a year ago – win games and keep us contending is making this a great season to be a Sox fan. It’s amazing how getting rid of a few bad apples can turn a team around.

We’ve got another local team that needs a new fresh start but I’m afraid they’re headed for some same-old, same-old. The Bristol County Water Authority should expect some hot water at their meeting on June 5th to hear from the public on the change in billing for rental properties. Many landlords received a note recently that said BCWA is planning to start billing the owners of rental properties for water consumption. In other words, the property owners get to foot the bill for tenants’ water use.

The BCWA has been toe-tapping around the reasoning for making the change. The first letter went out noting that the change would bring BCWA in line with “the billing practices of other water utilities,” but BCWA sings a different tune on their website noting that the change is meant to, “reduce the amount of non-collectable accounts” and that since “the property owner has the responsibility for the water charges, it may be in their interest to receive the bill.” My takeaway is that BCWA doesn’t do a good job of collecting their payments, so they’ve decided to indenture local property owners to do it for them.  It’s a bad idea for several reasons.

We have so little affordable housing here and soon we’d have less. If you own a rental property in Bristol and you are suddenly going to be billed for the property’s water usage, what’s the first thing you are going to do? That’s right – raise the rent. The property owner has to shield herself from the potential $500 water bill that comes when a tenant turns on the hose, leaves it on when he goes away for vacation, and then moves out a week later. By forcing property owners to take on that kind of financial risk, rents will go up for everyone and the rental market in town will change. This will hurt seniors, young families and those who want to live in the East Bay but struggle to pay the bills. 

Growing up in Bristol we frequently had water shortages and there were watering bans in effect for the better part of many summers. Lawns were crispy and the few that weren’t were viewed suspiciously and observed with accusing whispers about 3 a.m. waterings.  One man even had a nice painted sign on his gate that noted his water came from an artesian well.  Today my kids have “Don’t be a waterhog” tees that they received for participating in the annual poster content for BCWA. Water conservation has always been top of mind in Bristol – and presumably with the BCWA – until now. As someone who has considered drinking out of her rain barrels, I find this anti-conservation message most disturbing.  We all know that if water is “included” in the rent – and using it does not put a dent in one’s own wallet – the incentive to conserve water is gone and waterhogs will be popping up everywhere.

After everything that BCWA has dealt with in terms of public scrutiny and criticism for being badly managed, it is amazing to me that they would follow their 11% rate hike with this poorly thought-through idea. If they need to improve their billing, they should look at other best practices rather than looking at other RI utilities for their old practices.  Instead of changing the payer, update the payment system.  Encourage people to go “paperless” to save on paper, postage and personnel. For people who still choose a paper bill, leave the blue envelope out and save money on that. Work with the college to make sure that students pay their bills before getting their transcripts and work with property owners who have had problem tenants in the past.

The good news is that there’s time for a turnaround at the BCWA, but unless they rethink their strategy quickly, they may be riding the pine on June 5th and wishing they were playing for a different team.


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