Paso Robles City Council to review latest water rate plan

The Paso Robles City Council is expected to review the newest water rate structure proposal tonight, its fifth attempt to establish a plan to pay for the city’s portion of the Nacimiento Water Project.

Tonight’s proposals include a main plan and two less-detailed alternatives to it that all outline possible water rate increases for 2011 through 2015.

“This is just a rearrangement of the pricing,” City Manager Jim App said of the proposals. “The total amount needed is the same; this is just our next try.”

The current water fund, which customers pay into, brings in about $6 million annually. Nacimiento water plus all current water operation costs add up to more than $13 million each year.

The city has spent years trying to establish a rate, the method by which residents are charged for the water they use, with its first major attempts in 2004 and 2007. The city faces severe hits to its reserves until a rate is established because it has to start paying for the bills from its water fund reserves and then from the general fund when that dries up — estimated around 2014.

Against the city is the Concerned Citizens for Paso Robles, led by resident John Borst. The group’s main sticking point is that the city should refer to the rate increases as a special tax that would be assessed on all property owners, Borst said, not as a charge on a water bill.

Some members — including those on fixed incomes — also have concerns about the rising costs of their utilities.

Paso Robles is the last partner in the pipeline project to decide how it will pay for its share of the $176.1 million project.

Its water customers will start paying this summer for water they can’t use for at least another two years. That’s because a facility to make the lake water drinkable can’t be built until the new rates are set.

Voters rejected the city’s latest attempt in November.

The proposals

Pitched as the city’s primary proposal, the first plan was established after members of the public asked for a plan that resulted in lower bills for those who save water.

Under this plan, households would pay less than businesses, because businesses’ meters are larger and allow for the delivery of more water. It charges customers varying amounts per unit — or 748 gallons — with tiers that increase along with monthly consumption.

It also lowers a longstanding $18 fixed rate to $10 per bill for the average user, based on 13 units, but that will increase by meter size.

Among the alternatives is one that charges business and residential customers the same price per unit. It’s also based on usage, but without tiers, and everyone is charged the same regardless of meter size.

“Everyone pays the same … like they would for a gallon of milk at the store,” App said. “If you buy more, you pay more.”

The other alternative presents bills as a special tax — something Borst’s group has long requested. It would charge all property owners, including those who are not water customers, based on their property value and appear on property tax bills. This proposal would also result in higher water bills because of the ways property tax laws are set up.

Borst says all the plans “fall short of being lawful and equitable, and even affordable for many people living in our community.”

Further work is needed on the plans, he said.

The public’s input has also been gathered at various workshops. One main request is a low-income element.

However, Proposition 218 — the initiative approved by California voters in 1996 that mandates a public review — prohibits discounts for select classes of users, officials said.

The city will instead establish a voluntary donation fund to help those customers.

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