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Sacramento City Council passes water, wastewater rate increases

Utilities workers repair a road in East Sacramento where a water main burst in 2012. The City Council is to vote Tuesday night on water and rate increases. If approved, the city will also benefit from a tax on utility bills.
Utilities workers repair a road in East Sacramento where a water main burst in 2012. The City Council is to vote Tuesday night on water and rate increases. If approved, the city will also benefit from a tax on utility bills. Sacramento Bee file

The Sacramento City Council voted Tuesday to increase water and wastewater utility rates by nearly 45 percent by July 2019.

There will be a 10 percent hike in water rates and a 9 percent increase for wastewater annually for the next four fiscal years, starting July 1, 2016. The rates passed 7-1, with Councilman Allen Warren voting no and Councilwoman Angelique Ashby abstaining.

City Manager John Shirey joined Department of Utilities Director Bill Busath and Financial Services Manager Susan Goodison to present the rate increases to the council.

“I know that these rate increases are not easy for you to vote on, but they are nonetheless necessary if we are going to continue our investments, continue to upgrade our infrastructure,” Shirey said.

Busath said the water rate hike is needed to pay for the state-mandated installation of water meters across the city. The wastewater rate increase will pay for infrastructure upgrades. The Department of Utilities estimates that 40 percent of the wastewater pipelines are at least 70 years old.

Councilman Jeff Harris said he thinks it will be more expensive in the long run to put off the repairs and replacement funded by the increases.

“I’m not happy about these increases, but from where I sit, it’s absolutely necessary to make the city function properly,” he said.

Ashby said she’s concerned about the people pinched in the middle – residents who don’t qualify for assistance but don’t have enough savings to bear the burden of the increases. In addition, there is about 40 percent of the city that is not part of the city wastewater system, meaning that a smaller part of the city is carrying the increase.

“I am having a hard time supporting this much this fast. It feels unequal across the city,” she said.

A number of residents came out to support and denounce the rate increases, including a group from Eye on Sacramento, which brought along a skeleton in a wheelchair wearing a “Sacramento taxpayer” sign.

The rate proposal was backed by the Utility Rates Advisory Commission, which voted in February to support the increase after two public hearings where residents voiced their concerns.

At the first hearing in January, the commission asked the department to explore slowing down the water meter program, which is due to be completed in 2020, four years ahead of the state deadline. The Department of Utilities told the commission in February that delaying the installation would only reduce the increase by 1 percent and cause higher increases in the future.

One of the main concerns commission members had was the low participation in the Utility Rate Assistance Program, which offsets utility costs for customers living at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. The plan approved by the council Tuesday directs the department to expand the scope of the program to include nonprofit organizations that provide housing to low-income residents.

Council member Larry Carr said he thinks it’s important to continue outreach on assistance to communities that don’t speak English or don’t read mainstream news. However, he said he thinks the rate increases are needed.

“You have to pay the bills that come due,” he said

URAP began enrolling customers in January 2013 and about 1,700 customers are signed up at this point. The Department of Utilities believes there are many more customers who qualify and is using SMUD’s list of customers who need assistance to find those households.

Ellen Garrison: 916-321-1920, @EllenGarrison

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