In a stark contrast to an identical hearing held in September, a 35 percent water rate increase for the community of Santa Margarita was approved Tuesday with minimal opposition.
A protest hearing before the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors drew only 10 protest signatures from property owners in the community, far below the 261 signatures needed to successfully block the rate hike. In contrast, a hearing in September drew 262 protest signatures, one more than was needed to block the increase.
The new rate increase will go into effect in 30 days, and most Santa Margarita residents should see the higher rates on their bills in March, said Will Clemens, administrator for the county Department of Public Works, which manages the community’s water system.
Under the new rates, the average rate billed every two months will increase from $88.36 to $118.94, an increase of about 35 percent. This will generate another $100,000 year to operate the water system.
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County officials say the rate hike is needed to offset the revenue lost since Santa Margarita residents have been cutting back on water use because of the drought and statewide conservation mandates. Residents have cut water consumption by 32 percent, resulting in a 32 percent drop in revenues to the county-operated water system.
Clemens said the county did significant community outreach to explain why the increase was needed and the problems that could arise — including disruptions in water service — if the water department becomes insolvent. The costs to manage a water system are largely fixed and do not go down even if people are using less water.
“This has brought us to the realization that it is not the cost of the water, it is the infrastructure,” said Supervisor Debbie Arnold, whose district includes Santa Margarita.
In order to keep the water system solvent, supervisors had to loan the department $60,000. That loan will be repaid under the new rate structure, Clemens said.
Under the new rate structure, the 520 water customers in the community will pay a minimum rate and then an additional rate for each 100 cubic feet of water used. One hundred cubic feet of water is 748 gallons.