Paso Robles City Council approves water rate increases

The Paso Robles City Council on Tuesday night unanimously voted to raise customers’ water rates — its sixth attempt at a rate increase since 2007.

The increased rate structure, set to appear on water bills in 2012, would pay for the city’s share of the recently completed Nacimiento Water Project.

It’s the same rate increase the council approved in May before protest group Concerned Citizens for Paso Robles sued the city over the action.

“This road has gotten way too long and we have a bill to pay,” Councilman John Hamon said.

Concerned Citizens has long argued that the rate increases should be considered a special tax, requiring a two-thirds vote under state law, not a fee on a water bill.

A San Luis Obispo Superior Court judge in October ruled in the lawsuit that the increased rates are not a special tax.

However, Judge Martin Tangeman also ruled that the mailer notifying the city’s water customers last year didn’t adequately describe why the hikes were needed.

In February, the council approved new notices.

Concerned Citizens spokesman John Borst urged the council not to pass the rate hike. The group told The Tribune last week that it may protest the rates with a petition drive before what could be the council’s final vote April 19.

In order to force the council to throw out the rate hike, the group needs at least 10 percent of the city’s water customers to sign.

Before Tuesday’s vote, only 35 of the city’s roughly 10,000 water accounts sent letters of protest in opposition to the rate increases. To stop the increases before the vote, at least 51 percent of the accounts would have had to send letters protesting the measure.

The group’s petition drive in March 2009 ultimately led to a ballot measure on rates, which failed by 54 percent that November.

The current plan is a rate based on individual water usage that drops the $18 fixed fee that appears on bills now. Rates would also go to $2.50 from $1.32 per 748 gallons used. Rates would then increase incrementally in later years before reaching $4.40 per unit in 2015.