Tucson water contemplating free water for the poor

Tucson water contemplating free water for the poor

TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - Tucson water rates will go up this year as they have every year for the past ten. Not as much as in past years but still significant.

That has some wondering how much they can go up and not hurt the poor and impoverished.

"The conversation is how to we make sure low income customers are not being priced out of the market," said Ward VI City Council member Steve Kozachik. "I say don't do that by saying water is free."

Right now, low income customers who qualify can get their water bills cut in half. But now a new proposal being floated would give the poor a choice. Stay on the present plan or get about 1,500 gallons a month for free.

"Limited-Income Assistance Program (LIAP): Staff proposes changes to Tucson Water's LIAP that would mitigate the potentially negative impacts of an increased Monthly Service Charge upon the utility's limited-income customers. Customers enrolled in the program currently receive a 50 percent monthly adjustment on the water portion of their utility bill (including base rates and variable rates). Under the staff proposal, LIAP participants could choose instead to receive a flat monthly adjustment that includes a 100 percent waiver of their monthly water service base rates plus 2 CCFs of water per month. Additionally, staff proposes an expansion of the LIAP, increasing the program budget and its reach among ratepayers in need of assistance. The Plan increases funding from $925,000/year in FY 2018, to $1,250,000 in FY 2019, and then increases by $50,000/year over the remaining Plan years."

"Even though it could be giving free water, it could be an encouragement to use less water," said Tucson Water Director Tim Thomure. "Because if you're using less water, the new program could cover more of your bill than 50 percent."

Every resident pays a set service charge which is generally about $30 a month, half of that for low income. Water use is tacked on to that to make the final bill. Low income can qualify to have their bills cut by 50 percent, but the new plan would give them a choice.

Under the proposal, the service charge would be waived for low income who choose the plan and qualify, and their bill would be based solely on water use.

If they stayed under 1,500 gallons, it would be free. However, that's a concern for Kozachik.

"We live in the desert, water is going to get more expensive," he said. "Sending a message that water in the desert is free, is not something we should be doing."

He believes the way "to do it is by saying we can give you greater savings though fixed rate charges."

Tucson already spends nearly a million dollars a year on rebates and cost savings for water conservation and while the concern with this plan, at least to this point, is not the cost, it's the message.

"I don't think giving free water, giving customers free water in the desert is a good idea at all," said Donna DeConcini.

Others say they deserve the benefit of the doubt especially if they are poor.

"We need it to live," said Carrie Crace. "Who are we to say just because you're poor that you can't have water, that you can't have it at a lower rate or even free."

Tucson's water director agrees, up to a point.

"Having a payment for that resource is appropriate," he said. "It's really a question of what's the right balance."

Tucson Water will hold a series of public hearings before the water rate hikes go into effect in July.

The average used will see an increase of about $3 to $3.50 a month.

There are two plans before the council right now. The final plan will be approved in May.

Whether the free water proposal makes the cut or moves forward will depend on public input from those public hearings.

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