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American Canyon officials will begin selling their proposed water rate hike — which will raise rates 9.5 percent annually over five years — to the public next month through community meetings.

The city says rates must go up to both fix longstanding imbalances in the city’s water fund and to pay for costly improvements to an aging water infrastructure.

Under the proposed restructuring of water rates, ratepayers would see a gradual increase in their bills each year until 2022.

A typical monthly water bill of $48.15 — for those using eight units of water — would rise to $55.35 this year, $62 next year, $69.41 in 2020, $77.66 in 2021, and $86.85 by 2022.

Ratepayers have been paying a $2 per unit surcharge since 2015 to cover some of the imbalance in the water fund brought on by water conservation implemented during the drought.

That surcharge will be replaced by the new rate structure if it is approved.

The higher water bills will be a product of changes in how the city charges customers for their water.

Until now, 90-93 percent of bills were based on variable rates that fluctuated depending on how much water a customer used, with the remaining 7-10 percent based on fixed rates.

This rate structure resulted in the city collecting less revenues than it costs to purchase, treat and deliver water to homes and business, officials say.

The new plan calls for bills to be based on 80 percent variable rates and 20 percent fixed.

In addition to fixing systemic imbalances in the city’s water fund, the proposal builds in the cost of paying for some of the millions of dollars needed for new water mains and other pipelines that are overdue for replacing in American Canyon.

The Public Works Department says American Canyon needs $14 million in water infrastructure improvements over the next five years, and over the next decade the total is $41.7 million.

Interim City Manager Jason Holley briefed the City Council on Feb. 20 about the new rate proposal.

Councilmember Mark Joseph said the plan needs to include a way to help the economically disadvantaged pay for higher water bills.

“If we don’t throw something out there to help our low income [earners] or seniors, it makes it hard for me to want to support” this plan, said Joseph.

Holley said an assistance program is being developed, but they’re still working on how to pay for it.

Councilmember David Oro told Holley that selling the plan to residents and business owners could be difficult.

“You’re biggest challenge is going to be a communications problem,” said Oro, who added it will be important to find ways to effectively explain to people why higher rates are necessary.

“The average citizen doesn’t appreciate how complicated water is in California,” he said.

Holley told the council that staff is planning a “robust information campaign with easy-to-understand materials” for people to digest.

The city has scheduled community meetings for March 5 and 8 to discuss the new rates.

Then, at the council’s scheduled March 20 meeting, Holley will ask council members to approve the plan so the city can send out notices to all ratepayers, as required under Prop. 218.

Prop. 218 stipulates that the city can raise water rates if less than half of all ratepayers object to it in writing.

When officials conduct their public outreach next month, they hope to employ help from local residents who volunteered to serve on the Water Rate Advisory Committee (WRAC), which was organized to develop the new rates.

Longtime resident and WRAC member Jim Potter said raising rates “is not a popular thing” — so much so that elected officials have been reluctant to do it in the past.

“And that’s why we’re in the mess we’re in now” with leaky pipes and water mains that need replacing. The infrastructure is crumbling in the old part of town,” said Potter.

Former councilmember and WRAC member Joan Bennett echoed Oro’s earlier remark that getting the message across to people will be most vital.

“We have to have a really really good explanation to our people why we’re doing what we’re doing,” said Bennett.