Councilmembers agreed on Tuesday to move forward with a five-year plan for water and wastewater rate hikes, leaving open the option for customer rebates should additional funds become available at a later date.
After much deliberation, rate studies, public hearings and community meetings, and four new plan options, all of which still included rate increases of various installments, the council directed City Manager Dylan Feik to return to the next city council meeting on Feb. 20 with the ordinance that will increase both water and sewer rates next month.
“The rates would go into effect March 1. Residential customers would see the first bills in April,” Feik said.
Sticking with the originally proposed plan, water rates will increase 15 percent starting in Fiscal Year 2018, 14 percent the following year and then 10 percent for the next three years, Fiscal Years 2020 through 2022.
Wastewater charges go up 15 percent in FY 2018, 13 percent the next year, 10 percent in Fiscal Years 2020 and 2021, ending with a 3 percent increase in the final year of the plan.
Handcuffed by Proposition 218 and the 2015 San Juan Capistrano ruling, the city is not allowed to offer a tiered rate structure as it has in the past, angering some residents who argue that those who use the most water should be charged more on a per-unit basis.
Sophie Gullung said that she was “shocked” when she calculated that her per-shower rate was actually higher than someone who uses more water than she and her family do.
“We’re certainly not saying the user shall not pay – the user shall pay,” said Mayor Chris Canning. “What everyone uses, whether you are a resident or a business, is you pay for what you use. The example you’ve given on paying less for more units, we don’t think that’s OK.”
The tiered structure which has been used in Calistoga “for a very long time” is no longer allowable in the state of California. “We used to ‘punish’ high water users,” Canning said. “That’s not allowed any more, and that is not something we can do. You can shake your head at us, (but) that’s not our doing. There’s nothing more than we would like than to keep that structure because it makes things very simple, but that is not us, it’s the state of California.”
Every community and municipality in the state is facing the same issue, he said.
Councilmember Jim Barnes said he realizes the percentages are high and that for those on a fixed income every dollar that goes to a resident’s utility bill is a dollar that isn’t available for other necessities, but he encouraged those who are not financially challenged to look at the actual dollar amount they pay versus the percentage increase. He said he currently pays about $121 per month for water and sewer. Under the new rate plan his bill will be about $138.
“For some that’s horrible. For me it’s OK,” he said.
The city currently budgets $15,000 to assist those on a low-income program and will increase that amount to $30,000, Feik said. They are also looking at various other ways to broaden the reach of assistance to those who need it.
Feik said that during the process of discussing the increases he has been told by some people that they were unaware of the low-income assistance and are working on ways to reach out to those in the community who may need help and don’t know about the program.
The Enterprise Fund (water and wastewater) needs to be self-sustaining and for several years has been propped up by the city’s General Fund. Feik wants to refinance the Enterprise Fund’s debt, which could save the city a great deal of money. He used as an example how the Calistoga Joint Unified School District refinanced its debt and will ultimately realize a savings of about $2.4 million.
Lenders will not consider refinancing Calistoga’s debt unless it can show that it has a revenue structure that supports the Enterprise Fund. Councilmembers agreed that once refinancing is complete or should the city be awarded grant monies that they will consider a proposal to refund to rate payers some of the increases that will occur.