Paso looks to adopt flat-rate water plan

It hasn’t made a final decision, but the Paso Robles City Council is seriously considering a new flat-rate structure to pay for its share of the Nacimiento Water Project.

The city must start paying for the pipeline this summer.

Council members reviewed the latest three proposals at a meeting Tuesday, ultimately favoring the simplest plan. They directed city staff to return Feb. 2 with more details on a uniform rate structure that would charge all users a flat amount regardless of meter size.

Water customers now pay $1.32 per unit of water — or 748 gallons — plus a fixed fee of $18. Under the 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.

“Right now I think this is the clearest, simplest thing we can give them,” Councilman Nick Gilman said.

Also before them was a tiered-rate approach pitched as the city’s main proposal and another that would charge all property owners a tax based on their property value as well as a higher water bill.

Those options were established after months of gathering public input on suggested ways to structure the rates, City Manager Jim App said.

Each proposal outlined possible water rate increases for 2011 through 2015 to fund the city’s portion of the Nacimiento pipeline.

At issue for the public was one part in the tiered system that would charge businesses more than households because they are set up on larger meters, which allow more water in. Mayor Duane Picanco also expressed concern that such a system could cause businesses to leave the city.

If the uniform water rate is adopted, it would be the city’s fifth attempt to establish a structure. The last time it adopted a rate, the council had to rescind its decision or call an election after the Concerned Citizens for Paso Robles led the protest ballot process. An election was called and voters rejected the proposal in November.

Criticism remains

Concerned Citizens argues that the rate increases to pay for the pipeline should be presented as a special tax, not as a charge on a water bill, leader John Borst said.

Like other attendees, he likes some elements of the new plans, he noted, such as the tiered rates designed to encourage conservation. He also liked that the uniform water rate drops the $18 fixed fee, he said.

But the plans still fall short of being lawful, he claims, adding that any rate structure needs to go through an election as a tax. The city has long said it has acted within the law in trying to set up the increases through changes in water bills.

Some members of the public criticized Concerned Citizens on Tuesday. Resident Tom Hardwick said he liked what the group stood for in the beginning but now questions its motives.

“You don’t want to bad-mouth a group of people because they have a difference of opinion than you,” Hardwick said Wednesday. “But it’s gotten to the point that ... they seem to want to not allow the Nacimiento Water Project to happen in Paso — knowing we have to pay for the pipeline one way or another.”

The 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 faces severe hits to its reserves until a rate is established because it has to start paying that shortfall from its water fund reserves and then from the general fund when that dries up — probably around 2014.

The rates will also pay for a treatment plant. That means when the water turns on this summer, customers will start paying for water they can’t use for at least another two years until a plant is built.