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WaterOperator.org Blog

Articles in support of small community water and wastewater operators.

Tips to Help Utilities Get the Water Rates They Need

In a previous post, we shared tips to help you lay the groundwork for a successful rate approval process. The strategies focused on gaining public support for your operations as a whole so customers understand its value when it came time to ask for additional funds. Following these will help you gain community buy-in, but how you present a rate increase proposal will still play a vital role in ensuring you have the rates you need. 

Here are a few things to remember while you are developing your communication strategy:

  • Timing is key. Community events, especially elections, can have a significant influence on the success of an increase.
  • Anticipating customer concerns and providing answers to questions about the need for the increase, cost efficiency, and how the change will affect individuals up front can do a lot to misunderstandings and foster public support.
  • Whether you're talking to a customers or the board, your messages should be succinct and consistent. Statements like, "Water reliability is at risk due to the need to upgrade the distribution system," clearly convey what is at stake and what actions can be taken.
  • Your local media can be a beneficial partner in utility communication, particularly if you have taken steps to cultivate a relationship.
  • Working with community stakeholders like environmental groups, industries, and even neighboring utilities can lend credibility to your messages and create champions for the rate adjustment. 

For more suggestions, read this report from an expert panel discussion at the 2014 AWWA/WEF Utility Management Conference.

Laying the Foundation for a Successful Rate Approval Process

It’s a problem faced by nearly every small system: your existing budget won’t cover the cost of new capital projects or even routine O&M. Raising water rates is no simple task, but there are strategies you can use to gain community buy-in.

We’ll share more tips for rate-specific communication in a later post. For now, let’s talk about what you can do to lay the groundwork. It is hard to ask customers for more money if they do not know and understand the value that you provide. The first step to gaining public support of a rate increase is to gain that support for your operations as a whole. 

Here are a few easy ways to boost your public image and set the stage for an effective push for a rate increase: 

  • Stop being invisible. Bad news—line breaks, sewer spills, etc.—have a way of getting out. If that is all your customers know about you, they won’t be eager to see their water bills go up. Sharing good news and helping the public and media put bad news in context will foster greater trust in your system and staff.
  • Keep them informed. Whether you’re responding to an emergency or conducting routine repairs that interrupt customer’s daily lives, you can keep the customer on your side by communicating with them often. Tell them what has happened, what you plan to do, and how they can get answers to their questions. 
  • Know your product. It’s not the water. It’s the service you offer customers so they can go about daily life. They will remember their interactions with your employees and how you helped them when you bring up a rate increase later.  
  • Heed the warning signs. Watch how your customers react to what you say and do. It’s much harder to mend broken relationships than to maintain them.
  • Show your appreciation. Consider hosting customer appreciation days or sending holiday cards to strengthen relationships with your customers. 

For more tips, check out this presentation from the 2014 American Water Works Association Annual Conference and Exposition.