Foon Rhee

City piles on utility rate hikes

Chris Hurd clears leaves from storm drains in East Sacramento during a February rainstorm. The city is looking into possible rate increases to upgrade the storm drainage system.
Chris Hurd clears leaves from storm drains in East Sacramento during a February rainstorm. The city is looking into possible rate increases to upgrade the storm drainage system.

Like 23,000 others across Sacramento, I got an “official survey” in the mail the other day. My first thought was this is great: City Hall wants my opinion on reducing the risk of floods.

A “fact sheet” featured a photo of a flooded street and highlighted how fixing the city’s decrepit storm drainage system would improve quality of life, boost economic development and protect the environment. Who could be against that?

Then, I looked at the survey itself, and I felt set up. It quickly became clear that homeowners could soon get thumped by yet another rate hike.

The very first question is about a potential ballot measure to increase storm drainage fees. For homes with six or seven rooms, the most common, the rate would go from $11.31 a month now to $14.92 by 2020. The survey then asks nine questions designed to figure out which buttons to push to get “yes” votes.

Not wanting angry residents with pitchforks at City Hall, the Department of Utilities emphasizes that all this is very preliminary.

But it does spotlight the tough balancing act in Sacramento and cities across California. On the one hand, we haven’t invested enough in all kinds of aging infrastructure, so the bill is coming due.

On the other hand, while the more affluent can grit their teeth and pay up, it’s a far heavier burden for those living paycheck to paycheck, seniors on fixed incomes and families still clawing their way back from the recession. And there are a lot of people in that boat; Sacramento’s median household income of about $50,000 a year is significantly lower than the state average of $61,000.

The problem isn’t this potential rate increase alone. It’s the piling on of utility rate hikes the last few years.

City water and sewer rates went up by double digits for three consecutive years, increasing the average bill by $19 a month as of last July. Another water rate hike could come in 2017 to help install water meters faster, a very worthy goal during the drought. Sacramento homeowners are also billed for regional wastewater rates, which are scheduled to go up another $6 a month by July 2016.

In March, the City Council approved hikes in garbage rates of 3 percent in July, 2 percent in July 2016 and 2 percent in July 2017, adding $2.41 to the monthly bill for a homeowner with a medium garbage can.

Add it all up, and you can’t blame homeowners who feel like they’re being nickel-and-dimed to death. Actually, it’s more than mere nickels and dimes.

If storm drainage rates go up (and not counting any yet-to-be approved increases), the average Sacramento homeowner’s monthly utility bill would jump from about $115 in June 2012 to at least $155 in 2020. That’s about $480 more a year for the privilege of living in Sacramento.

Bill Busath, the city’s new utilities director, told me that the impact of all the rate hikes is part of the discussion on the storm drainage fees, paid by 125,000 customers.

One way to show that concern is to expand a program – started in January 2013 to help ease the pain from the water and sewer rate hikes – that saves lower-income households as much as $12 a month on their bills. About 1,200 households are getting discounts, and $330,000 has been credited so far.

I’m with Steve Archibald, a member of the citizens Utilities Rate Advisory Commission, who wants the city to look into similar assistance for garbage and storm drainage bills. That would take a council vote to dip into the general fund, but with the improving budget outlook, it would be money well spent.

Archibald says he voted against the garbage rate hikes because the overall burden on customers was too great, and he will consider that when reviewing storm drainage rates.

They haven’t increased since 1996. Busath says the rates have “been on the radar screen” for six to eight years, but “no one was willing to pull the trigger.”

Meanwhile, the backlog of upgrades in the storm drainage system is nearing $1 billion, the utilities department says. There are many parts of Sacramento that aren’t up to standard – to keep streets passable in a 10-year flood and to avoid flooding of buildings in a 100-year storm. That includes areas where the same pipes handle stormwater and sewage, definitely not a good situation.

The rate hikes would support about $300 million to $400 million in projects over 30 years. The city is also looking at changing rates to more accurately account for how much stormwater a property produces by billing based on square footage or impervious area. For some homeowners, that would mean lower rates in 2016 and 2017.

Surveys that are returned will be compiled over the next four to six weeks, according to the department. A proposal will go through an ad hoc council committee and the citizens advisory commission before going before the full council next February or March. The soonest there could be a ballot measure is June 2016.

When I fill out my survey, I’ll mark “probably yes” on the rate hike. But like many others, I’m going to need a lot more convincing before I would vote “yes.”

Follow Foon Rhee on Twitter @foonrhee.