Ridge residents question proposed water-rate hikes, urge neighbors to protest
Paradise resident Pete Schwede is more than a little peeved about the prospect of a higher water bill. He’s poised to go from paying around $450 a year to more than $700. What’s more, he’s been conserving, like many of his neighbors, and he feels that he’s being punished for his effort. But, absent a strong base of like-minded individuals and businesses, it’s all but an eventuality. The Paradise Irrigation District board will be voting on a rate hike, effective Feb. 1, at its Jan. 29 meeting. If the directors follow their previous voting patterns, the increase will pass—unless a majority of customers file protests against it.
“Last year, we put a 5-gallon bucket in the shower, and we used the wastewater to water the lawn,” Schwede said recently by phone. “We followed all the rules.”
But one of the reasons given for the rate increase is the loss of revenue the district has taken in since the drought and mandatory conservation. With residents using less water, they’ve paid lower rates. That translated into a significant financial burden for the PID.
“We’ve lost $700,000 in the past 15 months, based on conservation,” said Kevin Phillips, PID chief financial officer. “But the district’s costs are extremely fixed.”
The other reason for the rate increase is the need for the district to implement a better filtration system for discharged water, based on Environmental Protection Agency standards.
“In 2010, we were told by the state that we are violating our national pollution discharge permits,” Phillips explained. Two chemicals—one used to disinfect the water, and trace amounts of aluminum—were found at higher levels than considered safe. “We were required to either get the water clean enough to meet those requirements or stop discharging.”
PID hired engineers to come up with solutions. One of them, a natural wetlands filtration system, would have cost about $2.5 million, according to the district website, but it was deemed undesirable, Phillips said, partly because such a system had never been used to filter out the chemicals of concern.
The second proposal was a mechanical system that would quickly press or spin contaminants out of the water so it could be returned to the treatment plant. “That price tag is $15 to $16 million,” Phillips said. “It’s an extremely large capital project for us.”
Hence, the rate increases, which include another hike in two years to help pay for the project. He explained that’s integral to the district’s ability to secure a loan from the state.
While a majority of the five district directors favor the more expensive, mechanical process, not everybody is on board. Director Bill Kellogg, for instance, has long championed the wetlands option as a financially prudent alternative. He was scheduled to bring it up as recently as Wednesday night’s meeting (Jan. 20), which was held after this paper’s deadline.
“It would take out the one chemical and the aluminum byproduct—it would clean up both of those in about 10 acres,” Kellogg said by phone.
He worries that the rate increases will be difficult for some residents to bear. “If we don’t do something, we won’t be able to meet payroll,” he acknowledged. “But 20 percent of our population up here is retired. It’s going to double some folks’ water rates.
“My thing is, we put in a one-year emergency price increase,” he added. “That way we can meet our payroll and everything. But [the increase] shouldn’t be to finance this long-range project.”
Paradise business owner and former mayor Alan White agreed that the district must remain viable. “I want good, fresh, clean water coming out of my taps. If I have to pay a little more for that, I’m OK with that,” he said. “But I don’t want rate changes for improvements that haven’t been approved yet.”
The revised rate formula is a tiered system, much like a cellphone data plan, where customers choose the amount of water they expect to use—based off previous bills—and pay for that amount. There is no rollover, but tiers can be changed any time throughout the year, explained PID General Manager George Barber during a workshop last month that is available on the district’s website. Customers initially will be enrolled in the middle tier, with a monthly charge of $54.31.
“We wanted to structure it to where folks who want to commit to using less water will pay a lesser charge because those who would like to use more water will pay more to offset that reduction in revenue,” Barber said in the workshop. “It’s the best way I could come up with to create some sort of low-income-type rate, legally, because legally we cannot provide a low-income rate.”
By “legally,” Barber is referring to Proposition 218, an amendment to the state Constitution enacted nearly two decades ago that calls for water districts to charge customers based on services provided, not on their financial standing. What Prop. 218 also did, however, was say that rate increases can be halted if a majority of customers protest.
“I’ve talked to probably more than 40 people who said they would go to a [PID] meeting and not one of them has shown up,” said Schwede, who’s hoping for a better turnout on Jan. 29. “If 50.1 percent of the people in Paradise take in or mail in a protest form, then this rate increase will have to be revised. It hasn’t been approved until we put our protest forms in.”