County proposes new water rate hike for Santa Margarita

After recently rejecting a similar plan by the thinnest of margins, Santa Margarita residents face a second chance to vote on a proposed rate increase to keep the community’s water system solvent.

The San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors recently introduced another water rate increase for the Santa Margarita water system, which is operated by the county Department of Public Works. Under the proposal, the average rate billed every two months would increase from $88.36 to $118.94 — or nearly 35 percent — to generate another $100,000 a year.

County officials say the rate hike is needed to offset the revenue lost since Santa Margarita residents have been cutting back on water use due to the drought and statewide conservation mandates. Santa Margarita residents have cut their water consumption by 32 percent, resulting in a 32 percent drop in revenues to the local water system.

The county proposed a similar rate hike in July but a protest was mounted that stopped the increase at a Sept. 15 hearing. A successful protest needs more than half the town’s property owners to sign on and the Sept. 15 protest got one more signature than the needed 261.

As a result, county supervisors had to approve a $60,000 loan to keep the water system financially afloat. Santa Margarita residents have until Dec. 15 to gather signatures protesting the new rate increase.

The new increase is similar to the unsuccessful one in that it would eliminate the current tiered rate system. Under the current system, water customers pay a minimum charge and then additional rates ranging from $2.93 to $3.76 depending on how much water they use.

Under the proposed increase, customers would pay a minimum rate and then a single additional rate for each additional 100 cubic feet of water used. One hundred cubic feet of water equals 748 gallons.

The new rate increase is different from the previous one in that the minimum charge is higher and the 100-cubic-feet rate is lower, said Public Works administrator Will Clemens. Under the new rate, the bi-monthly minimum charge is $69.74, up from $44.64 and the 100-cubic-feet charge is $3.10, down from $4.55.

This means that under the new rate the average water customer — even those who conserve a lot of water — will pay more compared to the rate structure rejected by residents in September.

The new rate was selected after consulting with the town’s community service area advisory committee. Clemens gave the committee a range of three options with varying combinations of minimum charges and usage charges.

“It was a middle of the road choice,” Clemens said. “The majority of our costs are fixed and the committee thought that the majority should pay the higher rates rather than the higher users.”

Notices of the proposed rate increase were sent to Santa Margarita residents Oct. 27.

What’s next

A public meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m., Nov. 18, in the Santa Margarita Community Center on the corner of Murphy Avenue and I Street in Santa Margarita.

Residents wanting to protest the rate hike have until Dec. 15 to gather signatures.