BLUE MOUND — Minnie Wengert does not have a washing machine or a dishwasher. The 94-year-old conserves water by hand-washing dishes, using her shower sparingly and not watering the lawn.
Despite these efforts, she says, her monthly water bill averages about $125 for 5,000 gallons.
“I have had to cut back on everything just to pay for that water bill,” Wengert said.
In this small North Texas town, the water infrastructure and billing are owned by Monarch Utilities, a private corporation. Residents say this privatized structure, which is duplicated in a number of other rural communities around Texas, results in painful rate hikes. Monarch and other private water companies say their rates reflect the high costs of providing water to far-flung areas. The Legislature is weighing changes to make it easier for communities to challenge rate increases.
Chuck Profilet, an official with SouthWest Water Company, which owns Monarch, said his company had raised rates twice in Blue Mound since 2005 for a total increase of 62 percent. These increases are justified, he said, because the company has invested in maintaining and improving the water and sewer systems. “Things break, and when they break we repair them,” Profilet said.
But residents are frustrated. Recently, Wengert and dozens of others gathered at the local community center to discuss ways to fix the problem. Addressing the crowd from the back porch of the building, Mayor Alan Hooks answered questions through a megaphone. Hooks said there was a question of fairness, because people living in neighboring Fort Worth pay lower monthly rates.
“On one side of the street they pay $50, and on the other side they pay $140” for roughly the same amount of water, he said before the rally. “The state of Texas has caused this monster, and they need to fix it.”
House Bill 1160, by state Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, whose district includes Blue Mound, would make it easier for towns with populations of no more than 2,500 and rates at least 50 percent higher than some nearby cities to obtain the rights to run their water systems.
Blue Mound, whose population is about 2,400, is currently in a legal battle with Monarch in an effort to gain the right to provide its own water.
State lawmakers are also deciding if oversight of water rates should be shifted from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to the Public Utility Commission. If rate oversight were shifted over, a public consumer advocacy group attached to the utility commission would be able to help ratepayers with disputes. Private companies oppose the shift, saying it would increase legal wrangling and costs. Ratepayers ultimately pay the bill for the companies’ cost of litigating rate-increase disputes.
Profilet said that comparing rural water utilities with those in big cities is an apples-to-oranges comparison. He believes that lower rates in big cities are influenced by political pressure to reduce costs. Also, he noted, private water providers pay property taxes, whereas city-owned water systems do not.