Davis sewer fees are illegal, lawsuit charges

Published: Saturday, Apr. 6, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B

Davis illegally imposes high sewer fees on residents to subsidize treatment of wastewater from city government facilities, a Davis group alleges in a newly amended lawsuit.

Yolo Ratepayers for Affordable Public Utility Services filed the suit in Yolo Superior Court last week, alleging that the city's reliance on ratepayers to pay to treat its own wastewater from government buildings violates the state constitution.

The group contends the practice has resulted in residents paying for wastewater services beyond what they received dating back to 2008.

The suit calls for the city to establish a fund to repay Davis ratepayers and stop "overcharging the ratepayers for the purpose of subsidizing the city's water use and … extracting illegal revenue from the city's wastewater rate payers."

"As part of our research into the rate structure, we uncovered problems with the wastewater treatment rates," said Michael Harrington, the Davis attorney who drafted the complaint. "We became convinced that the rate structure doesn't comply with (Proposition) 218."

Davis officials have repeatedly denied accusations that the city is overcharging its ratepayers and did so again in a statement on Thursday, saying the city will "vigilantly defend itself" against the lawsuit.

"The city firmly believes the water and sewer rates are legally valid and the lawsuit is without merit," the statement read, citing "statewide experts on rate structure."

According to the complaint, the city instituted wastewater treatment rate increases in 2008 based on residents' winter water use, reasoning that water used during the cold-weather months is mostly used indoors and returned to the wastewater system.

Residents in the unincorporated El Macero neighborhood just east of Davis, which receives water and sewer services from the city, protested the 2008 rate hikes and do not pay them.

Yolo County is responsible for collecting sewer fees from El Macero residents, but the county has not sought the rate increase from that unincorporated community, equal to more than $500,000, the complaint alleges.

The city of Davis has since looked the other way, the complaint says, while Davis ratepayers continue to subsidize treatment of wastewater from city government buildings.

The lawsuit amends an earlier complaint alleging that water rates Davis residents have paid since 2010 – as well as pending increases to pay for the city's Surface Water Project with neighboring Woodland – unlawfully overcharge ratepayers.

The original suit alleged that while residents were being overcharged, the city supplied water to city-owned and maintained properties for free or at "substantially reduced rates."

Questions about how much Davis charges its residents for water, how much more residents will pay over the next five years and the legality of both came as voters were deciding whether Davis should proceed with the water supply project.

Davis voters on March 5 endorsed the Surface Water Project, approving Measure I with 54 percent of the vote.

The project will cost Davis as much as $116 million before water purchases and other costs.

Water rates for a typical Davis single-family home, now about $35 a month, are expected to triple over the next five years to help pay for Davis' share of the estimated $245 million project.

The first rate increase will occur May 1.

Davis officials framed their statement Thursday in the context of the March 5 election, vowing to move ahead to "meet the city's future water needs" while dismissing the lawsuit as sour grapes.

"It is unfortunate that the Yolo Ratepayers for Affordable Public Utility Services group are not satisfied with the outcome of the Measure I election," the city's statement read. "Based on the Measure I vote, the city has a duty to move forward. Regretfully, the Davis ratepayers will bear the cost of defending this lawsuit."

But Harrington said the suit is about ratepayers, not politics.

"They want to paint this as a political device," Harrington said. "It's a legal challenge. If they're going to take our money, they need to follow the law."

Call The Bee's Darrell Smith, (916) 321-1040.

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