Paso voters reject water rate increase to fund Nacimiento pipeline project

Paso Robles voters on Tuesday firmly rejected proposed water rate increases to pay for the city’s share of the Nacimiento Water Project, according to unofficial election results.

Tuesday’s preliminary election results for Measure A-09 indicate about 37 percent of the city’s 14,562 registered voters cast ballots.

John Borst, spokesman for Concerned Citizens for Paso Robles, the group whose petition drive last spring ultimately led to Tuesday’s election, said various reasons played into voters’ decisions.

“One of them is that we had a very sound argument (against the proposed rate increases), I believe, to be made,” he said. “And, given the economy today with the way it is, asking the voters at large to raise rates — it’s just that the timing was wrong.”

“Another thing that really stands out is that people just didn’t come out to vote. That’s disappointing,” said Mayor Duane Picanco, who supported the rate increase.

The final outcome, which the county has 28 days to certify, will likely force Paso Robles to find a new rate plan to pay for the water it’s already signed up to receive while tapping into its reserves when the pipeline bills start coming in 2010.

“It’s obviously disappointing, but I’m not ready to give up” Picanco said. “The fact remains that the water is coming and the bill has to be paid.”

The rate plan that went before voters, a method called “pay as you go,” would have raised the average family’s monthly water bill to $49.95 in 2010 and to $63.65 in 2013. Those sums include an $18 fixed rate per bill to get water to residents, plus a variable rate based on how much each household or business uses.

Concerned Citizens members said the capital costs for the Nacimiento pipeline and related infrastructure should have been presented as a special tax — not a charge on a water bill. The city attorney has long said Paso Robles has acted within the law when it proposed rates to pay the costs. The entire Nacimiento project costs $176 million and will serve other areas in the county. Paso Robles is responsible for an estimated $60.8 million.

The estimated annual revenue from water payments under the city’s current rates is approximately $6.35 million, according to city documents. Bond obligations, labor and other operational costs are estimated at $9.9 million, so higher rates are needed to make up the difference, officials said.

The county could release official election results within two weeks, officials said.