Paso Robles moves ahead with water rate hikes

Paso Robles residents could see their water bills rise again in 2017 after the City Council unanimously voted this week to move ahead with a schedule of increases that would last through 2021.

The council’s vote Tuesday allows the city to mail notices to its approximately 10,000 water customers this week.

The proposed structure would raise water rates from $4.40 per unit (748 gallons) in January 2016 to $6.56 per unit in January 2021.

A monthly fixed fee would go from $0 in January 2016, to $5 in January 2017, $6.25 in January 2018, $7.50 in January 2019, $8.75 in January 2020 and $10 in January 2021.

Under California’s voter-approved Proposition 218, the process to increase water rates includes a public hearing and a protest period. By law, customers have 45 days to challenge the rates, but the city will accept objections until Jan. 19, when a hearing is scheduled to review whether a majority sent in protest votes. If a majority is reached, the increases can’t go forward.

The newest set of increases would start Jan. 1, 2017, and reinstate a monthly fixed charge that was dropped in 2011, as well as raise the per-unit cost of water in annual increments of about 40 cents through Jan. 1, 2021. The fixed charge would be lower than in the past.

“I think one of the most important things that’s happening here is we’re putting the city on a footing of graduating rate increases so we don’t wait a period and then bump everyone significantly down the line,” Mayor Steve Martin told The Tribune. “There’s been some talk about the city kicking the can down the road on paying for certain things in the past. So we’ve reversed that and have been working to set up a very orderly progression of rates so no one gets surprised.”

$4.10Paso Robles’ current cost per unit of water

$6.56 Paso Robles’ proposed cost per unit in January 2021

Without the proposed rate hike, the city’s water operations fund would go broke by fiscal year 2022-23, according to the city. Additional revenue is needed to maintain the city’s water storage and distribution systems due “to previous delays in adopting rates, overall community water conservation, and significantly lower water sales in response to the drought,” according to the proposal.

The rate hikes are on top of an already scheduled increase related to the Nacimiento Water Project, which will bring today’s rates from $4.10 per unit to $4.40 per unit in January.

The Nacimiento Water Project rate increases spurred a contentious debate in the city during a series of protests from 2007 to 2011 as Paso Robles tried to raise its rates to help pay for its share of the 45-mile pipeline that delivers supplemental drinking water from Lake Nacimiento.

Delays in adopting those rate increases meant the city has been late in building a treatment plant to make the lake water drinkable. That plant is now built but is still in the testing phase and slated to open later this month.

The protest process during that time caused numerous rate plan proposals, rate recalls, petition drives and a failed ballot measure in November 2009.

In 2011, the water rate structure that was finally approved, dropped an $18 fixed fee beginning with 2012 water bills and raised rates to $2.50 from $1.32 per unit. Since then, users’ rates have increased incrementally, with the last installment in that series to hit in January 2016.