After resident outcry, Sacramento panel tables decision on water rate hikes

After an outcry from residents objecting to a nearly 45 percent hike in water and wastewater fees over four years, a Sacramento advisory panel tabled a vote late Wednesday that would have recommended the City Council approve the increases.

During a public hearing, members of the Utility Rate Advisory Commission asked city officials whether Sacramento could reduce annual rate increases by slowing the pace of water meter installations. Residents would see rate hikes over a longer period of time, but the increases would be more gradual.

More than 30 residents spoke during the City Hall hearing to register objections and reluctant support for the proposed increases.

The current proposal calls for water rates to increase 10 percent per year for the next four years and wastewater service rates to increase 9 percent per year in the same time period. By July 2019, the typical single-family household would go from paying $68.15 to $98.60 for water and wastewater services each month, a nearly 45 percent jump.

Most of the money generated from the water rate increase would go toward the state-mandated water meter installation process.

Carolyn Veal-Hunter, chairwoman of the rate advisory commission, said she was uncomfortable approving the rate hikes in light of residents’ objections. She was among five commissioners who voted to have staff explore the possibility of a slower meter installation. A sixth commissioner, April Butcher, voted against postponement because she wanted to approve the rate hike recommendation.

In early 2015, the City Council directed the Department of Utilities to accelerate the meter installations by five years in response to the drought and as a cost-saving measure.

“It’s worth at least seeing what the numbers are like,” Veal-Hunter said of reversing the acceleration. “If we could just bring down that rate increase just a little bit.”

Commissioner Brian Biering said he thinks the City Council recommended accelerating the water meter installation without fully considering the impact on the ratepayers.

Christi Black-Davis, a public relations executive, said it’s hard to attract businesses to the city when utility costs are so uncertain.

“We need to know what are the rates going to be and how stable is our infrastructure,” she said. “Or how can we attract new businesses?”

Melissa Asher, a Land Park resident since 1998, reminded the commission that in any other industry, customers have a choice in what prices they pay for services.

“We can’t go elsewhere,” she said.

She asked the commission to consider more modest increases and to require more long-term planning from the department.

Others said they understood the city’s infrastructure has critical improvement needs, though they weren’t happy the rates had to go up so much.

Beth Hassett,executive director of the domestic violence prevention organization WEAVE, said over the past six years, her organization has invested millions in its residential buildings for women and children escaping dangerous situations.

“We made these investments in our community and programs hoping for an infrastructure in the city that would support our operation,” she said. “I’m hopeful we can come up with a solution as a city to have infrastructure to support the needy people who need us.”

Bill Busath, director of the Department of Utilities, also reported on the progress of the Utilities Rate Assistance Program. Residents are eligible for assistance if they have an income level at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, or $48,500 for a family of four.

Currently, 1,600 participants are receiving aid. Busath said the department is working with the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, which has a much more established program, to try to get more residents enrolled. The program is funded by the city’s general fund.

The commission will reconvene on Feb. 10. The City Council will review the commission’s recommendation when council members consider the rate increases in March.

Ellen Garrison: 916-321-1920, @EllenGarrison

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