Customers in a small Arden Arcade water district, who paid $18 a month for service in 2009, could see their bills grow by 350 percent in 2021 under a proposed rate hike.
The proposal by the Del Paso Manor Water District has residents reeling – not just over the amount of the increase, but what they call a lack of transparency.
District General Manager Debra Sedwick defends how her agency has handled the proposal and says she and district board members will explain the plan during a Monday workshop at a local church. The district serves about 1,800 residential, commercial and institutional customers in an area bounded by Watt and Eastern avenues, and Maryal Drive and Marconi Avenue.
Under the proposal, the owner of an average-size home would see annual increases for five years, bringing the current monthly bill of $43.65 to $80, an 83 percent increase.
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“I’d hate to think I’d have to sell my house because of water rates, but it could come to that,” said Patricia Kennedy, 82, who has lived in the district for 54 years. “I live on a fixed income.”
Marissa Burt, a stay-at-home mother, said she became frustrated after receiving a notice about the proposal from the district last month. She recalled that the district had approved a similar increase in 2010 and wanted to know why another was necessary. The notice refers to the need to replace “aging infrastructure,” including an outdated system of running water lines in customers’ backyards instead of their front yards. But it contains few specifics about the extent and cost of the proposed work.
Burt said she was further frustrated because the district does not have a website to access information. She decided to mobilize residents, printing letters that say they are opposed to the increase, and she and other residents distributed them to doorsteps across the district.
She said she has collected 400 protest letters and plans to get more than the approximately 900 she needs to have the proposal rejected under state law. The protest letters must be submitted before the district has its final hearing on May 5.
Burt and her husband said they have electronically scanned the letters and plan to deliver the originals on their own to the district. They said they are taking additional precautions of hand-delivering the letters, instead of having residents mail them. They are also making backups of them, because they said they don’t trust the district to properly count them.
They said part of their distrust stems from a hostile reaction they faced when they attended a Del Paso Manor Water District meeting to ask questions about the proposed rate hike. They said a board member started asking questions about them, including how long they had lived in the district.
Sedwick said the Burts may be taking the board’s reaction too personally. She said she and board members responded to their questions and plan to provide documents in response to requests made by Burt and other opponents under the California Public Records Act.
The monthly hike to $80 for average homeowners would move Del Paso Manor toward the higher end of water district rates in the Sacramento region, based on a Sacramento Bee review of 2016 rates last year. While residents in Placer County, Woodland and Elk Grove pay more per month, many residents in the city and county of Sacramento are paying closer to $60 a month after recent increases.
Under state law, water districts cannot approve rate increases without a “detailed engineer's report prepared by a registered professional engineer certified by the State of California.” Such reports are generally called “rate studies” and The Sacramento Bee requested one from the Del Paso Manor Water District. The district provided an eight-page “technical memorandum” from an engineering firm that does not explain the projects to be funded under the rate increase, saying they are “described in the (district’s) master plan of 2009.”
Sedwick later provided a copy of the master plan, confirming that it still serves as the blueprint for the district’s infrastructure needs. The plan called for the district to make $30 million in improvements, including digging new wells, replacing underground lines and installing meters. The then-53-year-old district needed to replace outdated and deteriorated infrastructure. The work would be done in three phases.
The district has completed the first phase, which was funded by the 2010 rate increase, and closed two wells and drilled two new ones, among other things.
The needs described in the 2009 master plan went significantly beyond what an outside review said was necessary in 2005.
The Sacramento Local Agency Formation Commission, which provides oversight for local governments, found that “the district has no immediate unmet infrastructure needs or existing deficiencies at the current levels of coverage and service response. Del Paso Manor Water District is an effective water district as it relates to water service provision, maintenance and improvement of infrastructure.”
Asked why the LAFCO study differs so much from the master plan, Sedwick said she couldn’t answer because she was not the general manager when it was completed. Sedwick served as the district’s office manager from 1988 until 2006, when she was promoted by the board to general manager, she said. She said she proposed the master plan to get a better grasp of the district’s needs.
While Burt has not seen the master plan, she said she has learned about some of its proposed projects and questions some of them. She said some work can be delayed to ease the amount of the rate increase. Sedwick said the board may consider doing that.
Burt also complains about the plan to add meters. California requires urban water districts with more 3,000 customers to provide metered service, and Del Paso Manor’s service level falls below that requirement.
Sedwick acknowledged that the district is not legally obligated to install meters but said the board decided that it was inevitable that the state will require metered service of all water districts. The district is not planning to install the actual meters during this phase but some of the infrastructure needed to use them in the future.
Burt and other residents also complained about compensation of Sedwick and other district employees. Sedwick was paid a $121,000 salary last year. That was the second-lowest of the general manager salaries at the seven independent water districts in Sacramento County, but Del Paso Manor was also by far the smallest district, The Bee found in a survey last year.
The district also pays a salary to its five elected board members, between $3,400 and $6,000 in 2015, according to the State Controller’s Office.
Responding by email to questions about compensation for herself and her board members, Sedwick said her salary “is fair for the job requirements and my qualifications, given the operational demands of a water district in California ... I do not receive a car allowance, company vehicle or other perks many, if not most, managers typically receive.”
As for the board members, Sedwick said they receive no more than $200 per meeting, in compliance with state water code. “Directors spend a tremendous amount of time reviewing and preparing for meetings and making informed policy decisions on behalf of the District and its ratepayers,” she added.
Del Paso Manor Water District workshop
6:30 p.m. Monday, St. Mark’s Church, 2391 St. Marks Way, Sacramento.