Proposed tiered water rate structure unfair, possibly be illegal!
August 28, 2015
By Susan Luzzaro
On August 31, Sweetwater Authority will hold a meeting to allow customers of the water agency to protest the agency’s proposed water rate hike. Customers include residents of western Chula Vista, Bonita and National City.
The agency charges consumers in tiered rates that are graduated according to water usage. Oddly, the agency’s website shows the commodity charge for those who use the least water, tier one, will see the biggest increase, while those in tier four, who consume the most, will be charged at a lesser rate. Tier one’s increase, according to the commodity chart, will increase 38% per 748 gallons; tier four will experience a 16% decrease per 748 gallons. Customers receive a bi-monthly bill. (See page 3 of the announcement http://www.sweetwater.org/Modules/ShowDocument.aspx?documentid=7196)
Buried within the current rate hike is the ghost of another jump up—if the drought persists the board will consider an additional hike.
In an August 24 interview, Sweetwater Authority Manager James Smythe and the agency’s public relations manager, Leslie Payne, were asked what would trigger an additional drought rate increase.
Smythe answered, “For example, if the drought continues and the governor does create a higher drought alert for the state, and customers conserve even more, then that would be a consideration. We would take the rates back to the board, we would have that discussion with our governing board.”
Smythe’s statement captures the Catch 22 of the ratepayers.
Several residents in a neighborhood west of 805 have converted to drought tolerant landscape, lawns gone 50 shades of brown, rock or gravel yards, and at least one lawn is painted green. One resident in the area carries bath water out to plants, and another pours dish water over prize roses. One neighbor said, “I’ve shortened my showers, don’t let the water run when I brush my teeth, bought a water-efficient washing machine, but if my rates and my neighbors rates increase because I did all that good stuff—well that’s a little oxymoronic.”
On August 24 Smythe responded to the question: How can customers win?
Smythe said, “It’s a really hard question for us to answer, about all we can do is help our customers as much as possible. I think a lot of people just don’t realize what an arid landscape we live in and that San Diego is at the end of the pipeline, and it costs a lot to import water into this area. So we do as much as we can do to help customers use less. That’s actually is a benefit because their bills wouldn’t be going up as much as they normally would if they didn’t reduce.”
Payne agreed that the situation was ironic. “Every agency in town, in the state as well, is facing the same problem. We’re fortunate at Sweetwater Authority, we have resources, we have our wells in National City, and we’re in the process of expanding our groundwater desalination facility. They’ll be breaking ground on that sometime in October and that’s going to help us come up with another water supply that’s a little more drought resistant and a good benefit to our customers. We’re always trying to increase our water portfolio and become less dependent on imported water…”
One reason Sweetwater Authority’s rates are going up this year is San Diego County Water Authority, the company that sells all the local agencies water, increased their rates by 6.6%.
Both Smythe and Payne also stated they want the agency to be a resource for their customers. Payne said, “We offer free home audits, we still have a lot of rebate programs for washing machines, toilets, even rain barrels. We offer a $75.00 rebate on rain barrels which is about cost.”
What has Sweetwater Authority done to save money?
Smythe answered: “We’re running as efficiently as possible. We feel like we’re at the right staffing level. Every year we review our budget and we only put in our budget what we need to spend. This year because there was significant water loss we did defer a number of capital projects that we normally would have done…such as pipeline projects that we felt comfortable deferring.
“The board is also looking at a hiring freeze. There are some vacant positions that haven’t been filled and they’re postponing filling them for the time being.”
Some say the tiered water rates are unfair; in fact, the agency is being sued by a group called the Sweetwater Authority Ratepayers Association. The suit is analogous to suits filed in San Juan Capistrano and Marin County which assert that the use of a tiered system is unconstitutional and that rates should be based on the actual cost of service, not on consumption.
San Juan Capistrano’s case was upheld in an April 20 appellate court ruling. According to a June 2 Courthouse News report, “A panel of the state’s 4th District Court of Appeal found that tiered water rates are allowed, but charging bigger water users incrementally higher rates not based on cost violated Proposition 218, which voters approved in 1996 to limit service fees imposed by local agencies.”
Smythe was unable to comment on the pending arbitration, however the Authority’s website states, “We believe our current and projected rates comply with state law.”
Higher rates will be implemented September 1—unless public protest is significant. The meeting notice states the board will “hear all oral comments to the proposed rate increases at the public hearing. Oral comments at the public hearing will not qualify as formal protests unless accompanied by a written protest…If written protests against the proposed rates, as outlined above are not presented by a majority of the property owners or tenants of the identified parcels subject to the proposed rate increases, the Governing Board will be authorized to adopt the rate increases to the water services.”
Smythe said fifty percent of the residents would translate into 15,930 Sweetwater Authority customers. The meeting is at 6:00, August 31 at 505 Garrett Avenue in Chula Vista.