If your utility is like most, your rates include a base (fixed) charge in addition to the usage charge. The base charge, sometimes called an administrative fee, should generate enough revenue to cover the fixed costs associated with operating your utility. This includes things like the customer’s meter, the infrastructure necessary to provide service to the customer’s location, and reading the meter each billing period. Some water utilities charge different base charges according to the size of the meter under the premise that a larger meter costs the utility more to provide and maintain, both for the meter and the infrastructure to supply water to the meter.

Conversation with a customer

I’ve recently had a conversation with a customer who is considering separating the base charge from the usage component of his city’s water and sewer rates. There are pros and cons to doing this, so this issue will examine those.

Benefits of separating the base charge

The biggest advantage of breaking out the base charge from the usage charge is transparency for your customers. Showing each as a separate line on the bill more clearly communicates to your customers what they are being charged.

A second advantage of separating the base charge from the usage charge is it’s easier for your customers to see the impact of increased or decreased usage on their bill. This is especially true if you institute water conservation rates in times of drought and even more important if you have increasing block rates, so that your customers see the impact of their water consumption. If you’ve recently switched to increasing block rates and haven’t reevaluated how you bill for multiple units, you might want to read this.

The third advantage of splitting the charges is it’s now much easier to track the revenue generated from each component of your rate. Rather than seeing one combined total on billing registers and reports, you will now see separate totals for each.

Disadvantages of separating the base charge

The disadvantage to separating the base charge from the usage charge is customer education. This can be mitigated if you publicize the transition well enough but, in spite of your best efforts at educating your customers, some won’t realize the change is happening until they receive their first bill with the charges separated.

Several years ago, a customer that provides both water and sewer decided to break out the base charge from the usage charge for both services. This meant their customers went from receiving a bill with two line items – water and sewer – to a bill with four line items – water base charge, water usage, sewer base charge, and sewer usage. They didn’t publicize the change well and, needless to say, their phones rang off the hook. Customers, mistakenly thinking they were being charged for additional services, were irate. They ended up paying bonuses to their customer service representatives because of all the verbal abuse they took from customers!

So the moral of the story is, if you decide to do this, publicize it as much as you can well in advance!