Editorials

Bill comes due on Sacramento’s aging infrastructure

Workers with Teichert Construction replace water mains in Land Park in November. The city Utilities Department is proposing rate hikes to finance more work on water, wastewater and storm drainage systems.
Workers with Teichert Construction replace water mains in Land Park in November. The city Utilities Department is proposing rate hikes to finance more work on water, wastewater and storm drainage systems. Sacramento Bee file

Sacramento residents can be excused for a severe case of sticker shock.

Under a preliminary proposal being presented to the City Council on Tuesday, there would be four consecutive years of utility rate hikes. Water rates would increase 10 percent a year, wastewater rates would rise 9 percent a year and storm drainage rates would go up 16 percent a year.

In 2020, at the end of the increases, water bills would be $21.22 a month higher, wastewater $9.23 more and storm drainage up $6.73 – a total increase of $37.18 a month.

No doubt, the city needs to catch up on aging infrastructure allowed to deteriorate for too long. Stricter environmental regulations are also part of the equation. The rate hikes would finance $367 million worth of projects over four years, including $220 million to finally finish the long-delayed installation of water meters. The Utilities Department says investing in infrastructure will pay off in creating construction jobs and in attracting new development.

Yet, City Council members also should consider the very real impact on households of these significant rate hikes. They have to be sure the major projects – other than water meters – need to be done on the planned schedule and weigh the risk of putting off a few to lower the increases.

And they must take into account that it’s not just these rate hikes, but the accumulation of several rounds of recent increases. Water and sewer rates went up by double digits for three years in a row, ending last year. Regional wastewater levies are rising. This year, the city started three years of garbage rate hikes.

If this proposal goes through as is, the average homeowner’s monthly bill for basic city utilities would jump from $115 in 2012 to about $188 in 2020 – nearly $900 more a year.

The Utilities Department is recommending that a program that helps the poorest households pay their water and sewer bills – 1,527 customers are saving as much as $12 a month – be extended to storm drainage as well.

That’s good and necessary, but it doesn’t help the many residents who aren’t officially poor but who certainly will feel the financial pinch. Sacramento’s median household income is about $50,000 a year, so $446 more a year under this proposal is not chump change.

There will be plenty of opportunity for residents to sound off before any rate hikes happen. A citizens advisory committee will start reviewing the proposal Wednesday and will hold a public hearing in January before making its recommendations to the council’s budget committee.

If approved, any water and wastewater increases would start July 1. The storm drainage rates also require voter approval, with balloting as soon as June.

On that same ballot will be the mayor’s seat and four spots on the City Council. The city’s basic infrastructure needs, utility rates and the financial health of Sacramento’s families – they sound like good topics for the campaign trail.

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