Paso may ask state to help get price break on water, sewer bills

Paso Robles might ask for state legislation that would allow local voters to approve price breaks for low-income households on water and sewer bills.

Proposition 218 — The Right to Vote on Taxes Act approved by California voters in 1996, which mandates a public review of local-government levies — forbids discounts for select classes of users.

Mayor Duane Picanco will have the option of signing letters urging Sen. Abel Maldonado and Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee to change that at the City Council meeting on Tuesday.

In a separate but related matter also to be presented, Paso Robles will make its fifth attempt to establish water-rate increases to pay for the city’s portion of the Nacimiento Water Project and its ongoing costs.

That structure is laid out as a uniform rate for all customers, with no fixed fee. Water customers would be required to pay $2.50 per unit starting in 2011, increasing gradually to $4.40 per unit in 2015. A billing-unit equals 748 gallons.

In public workshops to determine what people want in a new water-rate structure, customers and property owners asked the city for a low-income pricing structure on their water bills.

Because state law doesn’t allow that, the city has plans to set up a voluntary donation fund for them as part of its new water-rate increase proposal.

However, “the volume of potential applicants and the amount of money needed to cover could be significant,” City Manager Jim App said.

Presenting discounts for the low-income bracket on the bill, instead of restricting the aid from a voluntary donation pool, could alleviate that, he said.

Low-income is defined as households earning 80 percent or less of San Luis Obispo County’s median income, according the state. As of 2009, the local median is $70,800 for a family of four, for example.

The change would allow for low-income breaks for all applicable services cities provide statewide. In Paso Robles, it would cover water and sewer bills.

Private utility companies, such as electric, natural gas or telephone companies, operate under regulations of the California Public Utilities Commission, not Proposition 218, App said, so any new state legislation outcome wouldn’t apply to them.