Newman council signs off on water rate hike
NEWMAN – Local residents and businesses will be paying more for water beginning in Feburary.
The City Council last Tuesday enacted a five-year rate plan which will nearly double the typical monthly water bill for residential users.
Monthly water charges for a typical residential consumer will increase from $19.33 to $36.66 over the five-year period, climbing incrementally in annual increases. The initial monthly increase for a typical consumer will increase by about $7, according to the city.
As part of the proposal, the rate structure would also change to charge consumers a per-unit fee for every 100 cubic feet of water used (in addition to a base rate). The current base rates includes four units of water before per-unit charges kick in.
Speakers from the audience addressed concerns about the rate increase and the process used to meet the requirements of Prop. 218, which mandates that ratepayers have the opportunity to block such increases.
But the public hearing was not as contentious as that held in November when the council first considered the rate proposal, with fewer speakers addressing the council and the comments less pointed.
At that meeting, the council deferred action and ordered a new Prop. 218 election due to a ZIP Code mistake in the notices.
Last week, local leaders revisited the issue and again listened as community members voiced opposition.
Before opening the public hearing, city staff outlined the necessity for the rate increases.
Director of Public Works Garner Reynolds said the city has a number of water system needs – including replacement of aging water mains, new water storage, a new well and refurbishment of existing wells.
He said the city believes a well site being considered northwest of the existing city holds the promise of greatly improving water quality – particularly the salinity and overall hardness. A second test hole is being dug to confirm those initial test results, Reynolds added.
Promises of water system improvements did not appear to sway speakers who stepped up to voice their opposition.
“How is it going to help? (Rates) have already been increasing and increasing, and the water has not gotten any better,” stated Sharlene Lundin. “It is getting so costly that it is making it very difficult for those of us who aren’t making very much money or not working much.”
Alex Durbala said he believes the fees will be excessive – particularly since residents will be paying a volume charge on all water they use under the new rate structure. When he first moved to Newman, Durbala related, 10 units (a unit is about 750 gallons) were included in the base monthly rate before a per-unit charge kicked in. That was reduced to four units included in the base rate several years ago, he noted – and now that has been eliminated.
“You are really going to hurt people. It is not going to encourage them to stay in Newman,” said Durbala, who predicted dead lawns will be one outcome of the new rates and fee structure.
He suggested the city could find other efficiencies – such as using more fuel-efficient models for employees with take-home vehicles.
Laroy McDonald voiced his opposition as well, saying it was not appropriate to raise rates when many people are struggling financially.
Karen Keyes questioned whether any of the improvements promised by city staff in their presentation would happen any time in the near future.
“The only difference between us and the council is what side of the fence we’re on,” she stated. “We have the money. You need it, you want it.”
She challenged the process used by the city in conducting the Prop. 218 protest election, saying that the measure required a format which allowed stakeholders to cast a ballot either for or against the rate increase.
The city’s format gave property owners and account-holders an opportunity only to protest the decision. Had protests representing more than 50 percent of parcels in the city been filed, city staff said, the rate hike would have been blocked.
City Manager Michael Holland said the city stood by its stance that the election was done consistently with Prop. 218. The city’s attorney referenced the code and advised Mayor Ed Katen accordingly when the question was raised, Holland pointed out.
Ultimately, the council voted unanimously to enact the rate increases.
Katen acknowledged the concerns voiced at the meeting, but said the council was responsible for making decisions based on the best interest of the city.
“It is the cost of doing business, and a cost that we all absorb with you,” he pointed out. “The city has been very prudent, and our staff works hard to provide you with the best service possible. Hopefully we will see some better (quality) for our water. We all understand, but decisions have to be made for the betterment of the city.”