Broaden city’s help to pay higher water bills

A worker with Teichert Construction digs a hole on Land Park Drive as part of a water main replacement project in November 2014.
A worker with Teichert Construction digs a hole on Land Park Drive as part of a water main replacement project in November 2014. Sacramento Bee file

There was a common theme at last week’s public hearing on the city of Sacramento’s proposed water and wastewater rate increases – the impact on moderate and fixed-income residents. The proposed increases, which would add more than $30 to an average household’s monthly bill, threaten to eat away at money already earmarked for the mortgage, the energy bill, and other basic expenses.

The city offers a discount to customers with incomes at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. But the program is flawed: If you earn one penny over the threshold, you pay full price. Many households that are ineligible for assistance are facing financial ruin.

The city should scrap that arrangement and adopt an assistance program that offers discounts based on income brackets. A graduated format would add flexibility and offer some relief to Sacramento’s working class. Seniors on fixed incomes – many of whom are just above the current threshold – also would benefit.

A source of funding is already in place. Each year, 11 percent of the city’s utility revenue is deposited in the general fund. When utility rates increase, that revenue increases as well. In theory, the City Council can allocate that extra revenue however it wishes. In light of residents’ concerns, however, the council should use those funds to lessen the shock of increased rates on residents who are barely scraping by.

Only the council can expand the assistance program. The Utilities Rate Advisory Commission, which makes recommendations on rate increases, lacks the authority and the Department of Utilities is legally prohibited from expanding the program on its own.

Now that the issue has been raised, the council must debate the merits of expanding the program to ensure that nobody is forced to choose between paying for water and putting food on the table.

The rate increases are not yet final. On Feb. 10, the advisory commission will consider whether the city should postpone completing its state-mandated metering program until 2025, which would reduce short-term expenses and allow for more gradual increases.

But one thing is certain: the rates will rise. Our water infrastructure is deteriorating, and the bill is coming due. The city should not place an undue burden on those who are least able to pay.

Andrew Day is a member of the city of Sacramento’s Utilities Rate Advisory Commission. He can be contacted at