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Latest Paso Robles plan to raise water rates draws lawsuit from old foes

Five members of the Paso Robles-based citizens group that has actively fought proposals to raise municipal water rates filed a lawsuit this week against the city.

They allege wrongdoing in how Paso Robles adopted its newest set of water rates to pay for its portion of the Nacimiento Water Project. The rates were finalized last week and will start appearing on utility bills in January.

They aren’t seeking money, city attorney Iris Yang said, but to have the newest water rate ordinance declared invalid.

The suit, filed in San Luis Obispo County Superior Court, formally summarizes the group’s main sticking point over the last several years. It says that the city should refer to the rate increases as a special tax, not as a charge on a water bill.

“The city finds no merit in the argument,” City Manager Jim App said, “and will aggressively defend its actions.”

Under its special tax pursuits, the group has led petitions in years past against different rate structures.Without the new rates, the city doesn’t have enough income to cover its Nacimiento bills as there’s a $3.3 million gap between the revenue and expenses, App has said, which causes staff to use water-fund reserves that customers pay into and poses risk to the city’s general fund, which pays for police, fire and parks, already affected by the recession.

It also didn’t have the income to build a treatment plant to make the new lake water drinkable, so it’s now paying for water it can’t use until the plant is built.

The new rate ordinance was finalized on May 21.

In October 2008, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association said that while the law does not mandate these types of charges as special taxes, the association prefers it to be a tax.

In a statement, resident John Borst, who has long opposed the water rate increases through the Concerned Citizens for Paso Robles group, said he and the other four petitioners will “rely upon the wisdom of the court to correct what they believe is an attack on their liberties, rights of citizenship and economic welfare.”

The new rates raise costs to $2.50 from $1.32 per unit of water -- or 748 gallons. Rates then increase gradually in subsequent years before reaching $4.40 per unit in 2015.

They also drop the $18 fixed fee that appears on bills now.

Besides Borst, the petitioners on the latest suit include residents William Taylor, Brooke Mayo, Teresa St. Clair and Thomas Rusch. Except for Rusch, they are the same people who filed another suit in March 2009 alleging the city violated state law when it raised water and sewer rates in 2002 and 2004.

In it, the petitioners want to stop the city from collecting the fees and are seeking an $8 million-plus refund for the water and sewer rates they and about 10,000 water customers already paid.

The March 2009 case is pending while a Superior Court judge waits on the outcome of a similar case in Los Angeles.

HEARING DATE SET

The Superior Court has set a hearing on the issue in its Paso Robles branch for 10:30 a.m. July 6.

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