2015-11-20 / Front Page

Tiered water rate system goes down the drain

Most District No. 8 customers to pay 32 percent more
By Melissa Simon

After several months of public meetings during which countless Simi Valley residents expressed strong opposition to the plan, a divided Simi Valley City Council voted Monday to overhaul water rates for more than half of local customers beginning Jan. 1.

By a vote of 3-2, with Mayor Bob Huber and Councilmember Keith Mashburn opposed, the council this week eliminated Ventura County Waterworks District No. 8’s three-tier rate system, in which a customer’s rate goes up as their usage increases.

Instead, the 60 percent of Simi residents serviced by District No. 8 will pay a standard $3.40 per billing unit, or 748 gallons of water, regardless of the amount used. This means most residential customers, who previously fell into Tier 1 of the old rate system, will pay 82 cents more per billing unit, representing a 32 percent jump from the old Tier 1 rate of $2.58.

In addition, the district’s bimonthly flat rate service fee of $33.38 will go up to $38.85 starting Jan. 1.

The council’s decision, which does not affect the 40 percent of Simi Valley ratepayers who get their water from Golden State Water Company, comes seven months after city officials first proposed increasing water rates.

Most of District No. 8’s water comes from Northern California and is piped through Calleguas Municipal Water District, said Joe Deakin, Simi’s assistant director of public works.

In the last 11 years, Deakin said, import costs have increased 121 percent. Last year, the waterworks district paid $28.4 million, or 72 percent, of its $39.6-million budget to bring in the precious resource. The rising costs have led to a 20 percent deficit in the city’s water fund, he said.

“This is really unlike anything else we’re seeing and it’s the root of why we’re (increasing) water rates,” Deakin told the council this week. “People are conserving water at an extraordinary rate and . . . this conservation has led to less overall revenue and expenses. But the net result is that we’re still in a deficit.”

Public protest

During the public comment portion of Monday’s meeting— before the council voted—at least a dozen Simi Valley residents voiced their opposition to the rate hikes, calling them unfair.

“It sure sounds to me like you’re punishing the small person, the guy with the small lot who’s been . . . trying to conserve. And now you’re going to hit them with this flat fee,” resident Matthew Lussier said.

Jacqueline Zeig, another speaker, said she let her lawn die while conserving water. But the new rate system means she’ll have to pay the same as commercial entities using significantly more water.

“How is that fair?” she asked the council. “I understand the rates have to go up but I don’t understand why you have to . . . penalize the people who don’t use (too much water) as opposed to the ones who are abusing the water.”

Resident Loren Meck asserted the higher fees will make it harder to conserve when it’s really needed most.

“Right now we have a strong financial incentive to conserve, whereas if the bill doesn’t change much when we use less water, people aren’t going to use less water,” he said.

In response to the residents, Huber said that while he understood the public’s frustration, the city needs to raise rates.

“You can’t run a business at a loss for several years and expect positive results,” he said during the meeting. “I really feel (the public’s) passion . . . and a lot of it was well-placed. You have a right to be frustrated because the city didn’t raise the rates (slowly) over a number of years.”

Still, the mayor voted against the proposal because he believes the Proposition 218 process, which requires taxpayers’ approval of any property-related fees, like water rates, is flawed.

Over the past two months, city staff conducted community outreach via the Proposition 218 process.

Staff sent 25,250 notices to waterworks customers outlining the proposed changes. Had 50 percent of the ballots come back opposing the fees, it would have been killed automatically. But only 2,164, or roughly 9 percent, of the notices were returned.

Huber said he would prefer to see residents vote on the rates during an election.

“My bottom line is I don’t like the process, but . . . this is the law now so this is the way it works,” he said. “If this were to go to the ballot box, I would be out there campaigning . . . for a rate increase and I believe it would be justifiable.”

Mashburn, who was initially on board with a single-tier system, said he changed his mind because the new rates are going to “clobber the seniors and regular folks that are struggling.”

“After taking a look at this (fee increase) again and after hearing public comments, I’m starting to see maybe this isn’t the way to go,” he said during the meeting.

“But I also think we’re partially victims to the state, who keeps raising the rates for our wholesalers (like Calleguas), and there’s a trickle-down effect to us,” he continued. “Eventually, the waterworks district will run out of money, so that has to be passed on.”

Mashburn voted against the proposal because he felt reworking the tiered system may be better than having one standard fee.

Raising rates

Councilmember Glen Becerra said during the meeting that raising rates isn’t easy.

“We have subsidized the cost of water for a long time . . . and it put us in a bad situation where we’re asking (the community) to make up that difference,” he said. “No one wants to raise rates. That’s painful,” he continued. “But we do need to do something to make sure tha t . . . we’re able to provide you (the community) the water you have to have.”

Councilmember Mike Judge agreed with Becerra.

“The rates should have gone up over time like everything else instead of this happening all at once, hitting everyone like a sledgehammer,” he said. “Unfortunately, there’s not much we can do to get out of it except raise the rates.”

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