Paso may vote again on water

The multiyear saga to secure a new water rate plan in Paso Robles could likely end with an election again, those on both sides of the issue say.

The City Council unanimously voted this week to approve a new set of uniform rates that drops the fixed fee now seen on customer bills and charges everyone the same per-gallon cost for water used.

The move marks the city’s fifth attempt in several years to pass a new rate plan to pay for its share of the Nacimiento Water Project. Tuesday night’s decision comes after numerous other rate plans, rate recalls, petition drives, public comment workshops and most recently a November ballot measure that failed. Less than half of the city’s 14,562 registered voters cast votes.

“I don’t think any amount of campaigning one way or another will help because there are two very opposing groups that are committed to their position,” said John Borst, spokesman for the Concerned Citizens For Paso Robles, a group that has vocally opposed raising rates.

It has about 10 active members who argue that rate increases to pay for the pipeline should be presented as a special tax, not as a charge on a water bill.

The city has said it’s acted within the law.

Concerned Citizens has said that it will oppose the latest structure and other similarly structured rate plans, City Manager Jim App said.

That opposition is conducted through Proposition 218 — a voter-approved act that mandates a public review of local government levies.

The city’s next step is to send notifications this month of the new rates, and the right to protest them, to water customers and property owners.

The council will adopt the rates at a later date.

City defends action

Concerned Citizens favored the fixed fee dropped on Tuesday but still claims the city is being unlawful in passing the rates and could go easier on the ratepayers. City officials say Paso Robles’ actions are legal and officials have garnered public comment on the plan they’ve developed.

Thomas Rusch of Concerned Citizens claimed the city would violate the state Election Code if the City Council adopts the new rate because it would be before a year has passed since the November election.

The council members are proceeding on advice of the city attorney that they don’t have to wait a year, Rusch said Wednesday.

City Attorney Iris Yang said the City Council could go ahead with its planned adoption because it is presenting a set of rates different from the ones voters rejected.

Other residents supported the rate increase because the pipeline bills are due this summer, and they say they want to move forward. Some spoke out against Concerned Citizens.

Resident Larry Werner complained that the community has been “hijacked” by the Concerned Citizens and that its arguments are no longer credible to him.

“I don’t think they knew what they were voting for,” Werner said of Paso voters in the November election. “I think (voters) were scared. I think these people scared them.”

The city has long said that the issue is not whether to pay for the new water, but how.

Resident Kathy Barnett said she respects the formation of government opposition, but no longer agrees with the Concerned Citizens’ claims.

“I believe the residents of Paso Robles support a rate increase,” she said.

What the new water rate plan looks like

Water customers now pay $1.32 per unit of water — or 748 gallons — plus a fixed fee of $18. Under the approved uniform plan, the $18 fee would be dropped and users would be required to pay $2.50 per unit starting in 2011, increasing gradually to $4.40 per unit in 2015. The new costs will be split between current residents and new development over a period reaching to 2025.