Blue Mound fears higher water rates will cause businesses to leave

BLUE MOUND -- Mike Manjiyani can't keep his washeteria afloat much longer, saying he can't afford the high water bills.

Manjiyani is facing a tough financial future because Monarch Utilities, which provides water and sewer services for the city, is seeking a 36 percent water rate increase and a 25 percent sewer rate increase to help recover some of the costs of repairing its aging water systems across Texas.

But if the rate increase is approved by the state, Manjiyani said his commercial laundry may go down the drain.

"This is the only washeteria in Blue Mound. People will have to go elsewhere to wash their clothes," he said.

Manjiyani isn't the only commercial customer who is worried about the rate hike. Residents and business owners voiced their displeasure at a City Council meeting last month, when the council rejected Monarch's request, giving the company 90 days to appeal to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

Mayor Alan Hooks said he worries about the future of the blue-collar town's business community.

"It's a great location for businesses, but I can't get them to come here when they see the water rates," he said.

Monarch officials say they are "sensitive to the impact" that proposed rate increase may have, but that the company's nearly $70 million investment in improvements makes it necessary to ask its customers to pay more each month.

"It is definitely not our intention to create a financial hardship on any customer," said Janice Hayes, a spokeswoman with SouthWest Water Co., the firm that owns Monarch. "Our sizeable investment across the state means our costs are significantly higher and can no longer be sustained by current rates."

Under the proposed rate increase filed with the state, the average residential water bill charged to a Monarch customer using 6,000 gallons would climb from $70.15 to $95.47. The company had previously used a graduated schedule that charged rates based on the amount used.

The utility also wants to raise its sewage fees. Previously it charged a flat fee of $63.72. It now wants to levy a lower base fee of $46.59, while adding a $5.64 fee for every 1,000 gallons.

If the proposal is approved, a typical Blue Mound resident could see his monthly water and sewer bill jump from $133.87 to $175.90.

While the amount charged per gallon of water is same for residential and commercial customers, Monarch officials say it is harder to calculate an average water bill for a commercial customer because the size of the meter, and the amount of water used, varies dramatically.

The current base charge for water is $43.47. A business then pays a per-gallon charge that ranges from $3.62 per 1,000 gallons up to 2,000 gallons; $4.86 per 1,000 gallons when using between 2,001 and 20,000 gallons and $7.02 per 1,000 gallons when using more than 20,000 gallons.

Under the proposal, which if approved would go into effect in January, the base rate would go up $10 to $53.47, but varying steps in the fee schedule would be eliminated with commercial customers paying $7 per 1,000 gallons up to 20,000 gallons and $9 per 1,000 gallon when exceeding 20,000 gallons.

The amount charged, depending on the size of the meter, would also increase. Hayes said most of the businesses in Blue Mound use meters that are 3 inches or smaller. So, for example, a customer using a 1-inch meter would see the base rate go up to $133.68 from $108.68; on a 2-inch meter to $427.76 from $347.76; and a 3-inch meter to $802.05 from $652.05.

Commercial and residential users would be charged the same lower base fee with the added fee per 1,000 gallons, based on the meter's size, which also is declining under the proposal.

Manjiyani, who owns a small strip center including the laundromat, a Quik Way convenience store and a liquor store, said he has no experience running a laundry business, but it was already in the building when he bought the property two years ago.

Manjiyani said he tried to interest people in buying the laundromat, but when they saw the high water bills, they backed out.

There are 30 washing machines in the large room, 20 of which have "out of order" signs. Manjiyani's customers are going elsewhere, as they get tired of waiting for a machine that works, he said.

Manjiyani provided several bills to the Star-Telegram. Manjiyani said his bill from July 14 to Aug. 11 was $480.55 for water and $681.16 for sewer. In September, his combined water and sewer bill was $1,178.33

"How can I afford that with 10 working washers," he asked.

When Martha Cauthen opened Hair Flair, a beauty salon, 23 years ago, she recalled going to the Water Department and paying $25 a month and getting change. Those days are over, she said.

Cauthen's recent water bills have been about $200 a month and she her customers complain about the charges. While Cauthen said she doesn't intend to close, paying the bills is a struggle at times.

Cauthen said she has cut back on some aspects of her business such as selling fewer beauty supplies. "Water is something you have to have. You live with the high bills. I've been here for so long, and I don't want to move," she said.

Staff writer Max B. Baker contributed to this report.

Elizabeth Campbell, 817-390-7696