A slew of complaints have cropped up online and on the city’s phone lines as Kuna residents have noticed rising utility bills in recent months.
Leaky pipes and appliances as well as confusion over the city's new water and sewer rates have fueled 155 comments across three posts in the Kuna Must Know Facebook group. People have complained of being overcharged, having their water and sewer usage miscounted and having to pay more than they're accustomed to. Others have said their bills have barely shifted, and some have reported small decreases in their overall utility bills.
The city confirmed that staff have received "several" complaints, mostly related to sewer rates, but because multiple staff members took calls on a variety of issues, it's unclear just how widespread the outcry is. Inflated sewer bills, whether caused by price changes or damaged infrastructure, seem to be a likely culprit in many cases.
“The one area where folks may have noticed a significant change in the sewer bill was if a customer had a break or leaky appliances during the winter,” said Kuna treasurer Jared Empey, who explained that year-round sewer bills are based on usage during winter months, which the city does to establish a baseline when sewage output is usually lower. “However, if a customer shows proof of fixing the concern, we have tried to work with the customer to help mitigate the bill in the future.”
Empey said around 20-25 households have proven they had leaky pipes during the winter, which the city responded to by lowering their rates.
“This was not due to an error in calculation,” he said. “This was due to the fact that we wish to be good partners with the customers we serve, and we also understand that a break is a temporary aberration that is not captured in the winter water average.”
Kuna resident Lorra Glass shared a screenshot of her May utility bill with the Kuna Melba News, which showed a $37.55 charge for water and a $149 bill for sewer use.
“How on earth does $37.55 worth of water cost $149.00 to dispose of?” asked Glass, who said her most recent utility bills have been higher than any she’s received in 34 years of living in Kuna.
Glass’ water bill reflects 12,750 gallons pumped in a month, which exceeds the average Kuna resident’s summer water use of 5,000 gallons, said Empey. The sewer bill, however, equates to 28,000 gallons of average winter use, a steep total when compared with the 4,000 gallons that average Kuna homes put out during the winter.
Though Glass says she doesn’t know of any leaks in her home’s plumbing, Empey said, “It is possible that the customer had a break or excessive leak,” when asked about the sewer price.
Water bills, which are charged based on the previous month’s use, not based on winter use, have also been increasing. Kuna resident Morgan Rambo told the Kuna Melba News that her usage was incorrectly reported, and that her bills recently started showing 20,000 gallons of monthly water use, a total that far outpaced her previous bills.
“Our usage has not changed," she said. “In fact, I feel as though our usage has gone down from what we usually do. But the meter apparently says otherwise.”
Neither Rambo nor Glass had contacted the city yet when they talked with Kuna Melba News, though Rambo planned to.
Despite complaints on Facebook that the city is charging residents for more water than they actually use, the city says all the claims they’ve heard of have been baseless.
“I have not received any credible complaints about a customer being charged for more gallons than what was actually used,” said Empey.
The city did adjust water and sewer rates earlier this year, in part to help pay for upgrades to aging infrastructure. It’s unclear whether complaints are coming from users who didn’t know about the rate change until it showed up in their bills. At previous city council meetings, though, city staff said notice would be sent to local residents. The city did post notification of the rate changes on its Facebook page in English and Spanish on Jan. 27.
The decision to change rates was made notably before the COVID-19 pandemic increased unemployment numbers throughout the state, though even at the time, City Council President Briana Buban-Vonder Haar expressed concerns over the toll that price increases would take on some homeowners and renters.
Empey said that in response to complaints, the city is deciding whether to reduce bills exclusively for residents with pipe leaks on a “case-by-case basis.”
After the change, which took effect April 1, Kuna homeowners who used less than 5,000 gallons of water each month got a $3.41 discount on their water bill. Roughly half of Kuna homeowners use fewer than 5,000 gallons a month, on average. Users of 7,000 gallons or more began paying more than users previously pumping up to 10,000 gallons.
The new billing scale, which was based on a third-party evaluation of the city’s water and sewage grid, was meant to push water savings by charging households more directly based on how much they use.
Changes in utility rates were also made to replace the city’s “aging infrastructure,” a need outgoing Public Works Director Bob Bachman said was urgent.
“I do believe, as my job as the public works director for the city of Kuna, that I would be irresponsible to recommend anything else,” he said.
Under the old rules, households paid a flat fee of $21.02 in water bills each month, unless they were part of the city’s top 10% of users who spent an extra $1.75 for every 1,000 gallons they went over the 10,000 gallon flat-fee cap.
Now, the max level at which homeowners can pay a flat fee has been cut in half, with homes using 5,000 gallons or less paying only $17.61. However, rates steepened for homes using more water. Households consuming between 5,001 and 7,000 gallons tacked on an extra $1.56 per 1,000 gallons to their monthly bill. Those using between 7,001 and 10,000 gallons began paying $2.35 per 1,000 gallons added in April, and water usage above the 10,000 gallon mark started costing an extra $3.53 per gallon.
Seniors with low water use did get an increased discount, though, having their flat fee shrink from $16.33 to $13.75. When consuming more than 5,000 gallons, the elderly pay the same per-gallon-rate increases as other homeowners.
The new sewer rates work similarly, though they triggered an across-the-board increase in homeowners’ bills. The former flat fee of $27.30 increased to $35 per month and progressively grows as sewage output rises above 4,000 gallons.