The Paso Robles City Council on Tuesday gave its final approval to increase city water rates to pay for the city’s share of the Nacimiento Water Project — thus opening a 30-day window for a protest group to petition the unanimous decision, as it has done in the past.
Because the item came from the council’s consent calendar, an administrative set of proposals before the public hearings, council members didn’t comment.
But earlier this month when the council first tackled the latest set of rate hikes, members said the increases were critical to the budget and the city’s water supply.
The rate hikes have been embroiled in controversy since 2007.
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Concerned Citizens for Paso Robles filed a petition in March 2009 after the council gave its final approval on another set of water rate increases. It forced that council to recall the rates or hold a special election, which ultimately led to a ballot measure on rates that failed by 54 percent in November 2009.
Concerned Citizens then sued the city last spring for another set of rate increases it approved in 2010.
The group has long argued that the rate increases should be considered a special tax, requiring a two-thirds vote under state law, not a fee on a water bill.
But a San Luis Obispo Superior Court judge in October ruled in the lawsuit that the increased rates are not a special tax.
In order to force the council to throw out the rate hike yet again, at least 10 percent of the city’s water customers need to sign a protest petition by May 19.
But a group of residents that formed last year opposing Concerned Citizens aims to stand in the way.
Water4Paso members say they are committed to maintaining affordable water rates and to ensuring the city pays for Nacimiento water.
“We are now one year later and in the same place,” Water4Paso spokesman Larry Werner said before the meeting, saying Concerned Citizens has “hijacked” the town.
Without a water rate increase, the city water fund will go broke by 2014.
The city says it needs $13 million a year to meet payments for Nacimiento. That’s more than double the $6.3 million in annual revenue the water fund receives under current rates.
During the meeting, about 30 people stood in support of the rate increases. A few Concerned Citizens members attended the meeting but didn’t voice their opposition.
Water4Paso plans to do educational outreach by going door-to-door, putting up fliers and giving radio interviews.
Concerned Citizens hasn’t disclosed its outreach plans or confirmed that it will seek a petition drive.
The rate hike structure drops the $18 fixed fee that appears on bills now. Rates would also go to $2.50 from $1.32 per 748 gallons used. Rates would then increase incrementally in later years before reaching $4.40 per unit in 2015.
It’s set to appear on water bills in 2012.