Paso gets started on sewer upgrade procedure

The Paso Robles City Council late Tuesday night voted to move forward with a plan to finance a roughly $49.6 million treatment plant upgrade by raising monthly sewer rates.

Tuesday’s vote starts a state-mandated process of notifying ratepayers that an increase has been proposed, allowing them 45 days to file potential protests.

A hearing is to follow the end of the protest period, tentatively set for early December, officials said. If the majority of ratepayers don’t protest, then the council can adopt an ordinance to increase the sewer rates beginning July 2012.

The new rates, which received little public outcry Tuesday, would finance upgrades designed to stop chemical waste pollution in the Salinas River and to set aside money for future improvements for ongoing operations.

“This is a case where growth isn’t driving a need,” Mayor Pro Tem Fred Strong said. “We need a new plant — period.”

The total cost is estimated in 2014 dollars, accounting for expected inflation.

The new rate would be consumption-based, meaning a two-person household would be charged less than a six-person household. The plan would increase a typical household bill, which generates seven units of sewage per month, from the current fixed rate of $25.86 to $54 by 2016. A unit is 748 gallons. But the change also means monthly sewer bills could decrease from current charges for low water users and increase for those who discharge more.

The plan would also raise connection fees for new development from $5,467 to $10,900 per unit by January 2014. The new connection fees would begin in January 2012.

For the sewer rates, users would pay varying sums based on their discharge this winter, not accounting for landscape water.

The upgrade is needed to modernize the plant — built in 1954 — so it could remove excessive salts, nitrates, disinfection byproducts and other chemicals at its discharge pipe on the north end of town.

It’s intended to end violations of state water quality laws and stop an average monthly levy of $9,000 the city has had to pay over the past three years.

In August, the state said the fines could increase to $10,000 per day if the construction and startup of a new plant doesn’t come by Sept. 1, 2015.

The council chose by a 3-2 vote the less expensive of two rate-increase structures provided by city staff, based on the city financing the upgrade with a low-cost state loan rather than from conventional bond financing.

Councilmen John Hamon and Ed Steinbeck opted for a more aggressive rate-increase proposal that would have raised average user bills to $73 per month over five years.

That structure provided for a more aggressive repair savings fund, among other things. But Mayor Duane Picanco said “it doesn’t seem to be prudent on behalf of the ratepayers” to go with higher increases in the current economy.