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If you’re like most D.C. residents and use running water from time to time, you’ll soon be paying more for the service. As part of DC Water’s $2.6 billion Clean Rivers Project to build huge tunnels under the city and significantly reduce the amount of sewage entering D.C.’s rivers, property owners will be slapped with a surcharge on their water bills. But here’s the hitch: It won’t be proportional to the amount of water you use, but rather the total impervious area (i.e., hard surfaces, including roofs and driveways) of your property—-or, if you’re a renter, your landlord may pass these charges on to you. This makes sense in two ways. First, it addresses the actual issue: The problem here isn’t water consumption but stormwater runoff from hard surfaces, which overwhelms sewers during big storms. And second, it provides a good incentive: This’ll encourage people to replace their asphalt with grass and other materials that safely absorb water.
But according to a report this week from the nonprofit Good Jobs First, this funding mechanism presents its own big problem—-namely, it hits poor D.C. residents hardest.
“The DC Water Clean Rivers [impervious area charge] is a highly regressive fee that will have a disproportionate impact on low‐income residents and communities,” says the report, which was commissioned by the Washington Interfaith Network—-which has been critical of the Clean Rivers Project—-and the Laborers’ International Union of North America. “The impact of the IAC—-measured as a share of 2013 property taxes—-will be four‐ to five‐times greater for homeowners in poor neighborhoods than for those in affluent neighborhoods.” While District property owners already pay an impervious area charge, the report states that the average household’s IAC will increase from today’s $115 per year to $368 per year in 2021.
Generally, utility taxes are considered very regressive, since they affect everyone reasonably equally regardless of income. The IAC is certainly slightly more progressive, since it assesses a higher fee on people with more property, but it’s still not as progressive as, say, a graduated income tax.
The report’s author, Thomas Cafcas, says he’s in favor of the Clean Rivers Project, but hopes to mitigate the economic impact on low-income residents. His solution: Get DC Water to hire D.C. residents for the big construction project.
“The choice we face is whether we allow jobs and resident dollars to flow out of the region or reinvest those dollars into jobs and paychecks at home,” the report states. “If the Clean Rivers Project were used to provide underemployed residents with a foothold in the construction industry, the resulting benefits could more than offset those costs and create a healthy and sustainable environment for all the District’s residents.”
DC Water spokesman John Lisle acknowledges that the project, which is mandated by consent decrees with federal agencies, will cause rates to go up and put a burden on poor Washingtonians, though he notes that “the larger your property, the more you would pay, and commercial property owners pay the lion’s share.” But he says that some of this burden is offset by a customer assistance program that provides discounts to low-income ratepayers, and he says that job comparisons to other construction projects—-the report states that “North Carolina is better represented in the Blue Plains contractor workforce than Wards 7 & 8 combined”—-aren’t fair given the nature of this work.
“We’re a little concerned about being compared with the building construction industry,” Lisle says. “Some of the projects that we’re working on—-thermal hydrolysis and tunnel boring—-those are technical programs that require highly skilled employees, very different in many respects from general construction.”
Lisle says DC Water probably couldn’t agree to any arrangement that would require a certain number of jobs to go to D.C. residents, given the expertise needed for many of the positions. But, he says, DC Water is pursuing a modification of its consent decree with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Justice to allow for green infrastructure projects to complement Clean Rivers that would create more entry-level jobs available to D.C. residents—-an idea that’s also being pushed by the Washington Interfaith Network.
One interesting line in the report: “The system lets the primary users of the leading source of stormwater runoff in the District—-streets and roadways—-off the hook. By excluding public roadways from the IAC, DC Water is effectively subsidizing suburban commuters at the expense of District property owners who are forced to shoulder the entire burden of managing local runoff.” This is certainly true, and it applies to a large amount of road building and maintenance in the country that subsidizes driving. But it’s unclear exactly what can be done about it. D.C.’s Home Rule Charter prevents the city from levying a commuter tax, so the only real option would be for the city itself to pay an IAC to DC Water for its impervious surfaces, which presumably would then be passed onto taxpayers in the form of higher taxes. Theoretically, that could be a more progressive system than the IAC DC Water is proposing. But good luck getting the city to approve a big new citywide tax on all residents to pay for roadway runoff.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery