SLO approves conservation-punishing water rate hike
June 13, 2013
The San Luis Obispo City Council approved sewer rate increases Tuesday night, as well as restructured water rates that will hit hardest those who conserve the most.
The council voted 3-1 in favor of both the sewer and water rate increases, with Councilman Dan Carpenter dissenting on each. The 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 increases will mark the eight and ninth consecutive years of water rates hikes for the city.
Beginning next month, the average monthly sewer bill for residences, which is slightly more than the average water bill, will increase $2.28, followed by another $1.73 increase in July 2014. The average residence will pay $58.85 per month for their sewage in 2013-2014 and $60.58 in 2014-2015.
Water bills will increase at sharper rates for most residents, in particular those who are conservation-minded, even though the city encourages water conservation.
Conservers of water who use a little less than the city residential average will pay nearly $80 more in the upcoming fiscal year than they will have paid in the current year. In 2014-2015, they will pay more than $100 more for their total water consumption than they do currently.
The new water rate structure will raise monthly bills for most residential and commercial properties in the city for the next two fiscal years. The new structure will eliminate a low rate for users who conserve water and add a fixed charge of $5 a month for all city customers, regardless of their consumption amount.
So long as the council adopts its 2013-2015 by the end of June, the first rate hike will take effect next month. The second rate increase will take effect on July 1, 2014.
When the new structure takes effect, water rates will increase for all users, except for those who consume slightly above the city average and for residences that consume four times or more than the city average.
Despite the city’s insistence that residents should conserve water, those who use the least will face the sharpest increases and those who consume the most will realize the most savings. All water conservers who currently pay the rate the council has eliminated will face increases of at least 21 percent beginning next month. Residential water consumers who use the most will save at least 14 percent beginning next month.
All rates, however, will increase on July 1, 2014. The fixed monthly charge will also increase then from $5 to $5.28.
Due to the passage of California Proposition 218 in 1996, a majority of San Luis Obispo utility customers could have upstaged the sewer and water rate hikes by submitting written protests. A majority protest required more than 7,000 written objections from customers, yet by the beginning of the hearings Wednesday, the city only received 60 valid sewer rate protests and 181 valid water rate protests.
Several residents and business owners also spoke against the increases during public comment. None of the speakers during public comment supported the rate hikes.
Carpenter said he opposed both of the rate increases because utility department expenses, particularly staffing costs, have climbed too high.
Councilwoman Kathy Smith said she felt the pain of the ratepayers, but the city needed the rate increase to remain efficient and business-like.
Mayor Jan Marx said the water rate increase would keep the city secure in the case of a drought.
Councilman John Ashbaugh said he opposed the conservation-penalizing structure of the water rates but, too, voted for the increase. Ashbaugh said residents must pay for the quality of water they receive in San Luis Obispo.
“Right now I’m drinking San Luis Obispo tap water, and I drink it all the time,” Ashbaugh said.
Former mayoral candidate Steve Barasch suggested that the city sell water it pipes in but does not use in order to help cover costs. Marx said doing so would encourage urban sprawl and would conflict with smart growth principles.
The city is currently paying $4.7 million annually in debt payments for the Nacimiento pipeline and is only in the second year of a 30-year obligation. A $63.2 million upgrade to the city water reclamation facility is also scheduled to occur in the next five years.