Camillus water bill increase: The Real Deal

Homeowners in Camillus say their water bills have suddenly doubled. Voters handed over control of their local water system to OCWA (AQUA), the Onondaga County Water Authority, hoping to save money, but residents who contacted NewsChannel 9 say that’s not the case.
Camillus (WSYR-TV) -- When voters in the Town of Camillus eliminated their local water department and handed over control to the Onondaga County Water Authority, they were hoping to save money.

"When I opened the bill, I was kind of surprised and shocked because it was so much more than I am used to paying," Camillus resident Ramon Grossi said.

The Grossi's final quarterly bill from the Camillus Consolidated Water District totaled $35. The first bill from OCWA rose to $81. Camillus Town Supervisor Mary Ann Coogan has fielded numerous calls about the sticker shock.

A series of complications during the transition contributed to widespread confusion. First, Coogan says the past two billing cycles did not cover the standard period of time.

"The (final) bill we sent out was unusually low (minus two weeks of usage) and the (first) bill that OCWA sent out had two extra weeks of use in it. So, neither bill reflected the true cost of the water," Coogan said.

Also, Councilor Dave Callahan told his constituents that a billing error resulted in some customers being overcharged $20. They'll be refunded.

Finally, under the old system, customers paid for water service through two separate bills. A water bill covered actual usage every three months. A yearly tax bill covered operational expenses for the town's water department, including employee wages and benefits.

For example, customers who used 10,000 gallons of water would be charged roughly $35 on their quarterly water bill. For a home assessed at $150,000, an extra $57 would appear on tax bills for the year...that breaks down to $14 each quarter. To compare, the combined cost for usage and taxes under the old system would be about $49 each quarter.

OCWA charges much more for 10,000 gallons of water, about $48. The cost spikes upward for higher usage. But, operational expenses are included. Residents won't see an additional charge on their yearly tax bills.

"In the long run it is going to save the town money, this lease with OCWA, because we no longer have that million dollar plus department to run," Coogan explained.

Families using more than 10,000 gallons of water will likely see a rise in fees, since OCWA charges more per gallon. The need for conservation was pitched as a justification. Grossi, a retiree, believes his quarterly bill will ultimately be slightly higher than he was paying with the Camillus Consolidated Water District. So, why the switch?

Coogan says the town's aging water system needs $4-million in infrastructure upgrades, a large financial commitment for a small town to shoulder. By transferring operation of the water service to OCWA, that cost will be shared by a wider customer base, not just those who live in Camillus. Voters approved the deal in a referendum vote.

As part of the transition, the town will sell off it's resources and surpluses accrued over the years. Residents were promised a refund of about $75. They'd expected to be paid more quickly. Callahan says an audit is taking longer than expected and the refund should be paid out this summer. He also expects the customers who were over-charged in the first bill to get their $20 refunds this summer.

As his garden soaks up the sun, Ramon Grossi has patience.

"I told the wife, let's wait and see what normal usage we get in the next bill. I'll accept this bill, but I want to see what it is normally going to be," Grossi said.

Until then, he's hoping for more rain.

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