Napa water rate increase

A five-year schedule of water rate increases approved by the city of Napa is intended to fill a funding gap created by declining water sales during the California drought. The first hikes will appear on bills starting in February.

J.L. Sousa, Register file photo

The Napa City Council on Tuesday cleared the way for a series of rate increases for local water customers, though not without a final volley of complaints the hikes would hit the most vulnerable residents hardest.

More than a dozen residents spoke out at City Hall against the new pricing structure, which will include increases to monthly water bills through 2022 and impose a baseline charge on all homes and businesses regardless of consumption level.

But a state-required mail-in ballot to block the hikes produced 2,178 letters of protest by Tuesday night – well short of a majority of the 30,994 notices mailed to customers – allowing the council to approve the higher rates, which it did unanimously.

Before the new water rates became official, some Napans urged city leaders to avoid overburdening residents for the upkeep of public services.

“The decision you people are going to make is going to affect every single living person in this area, from little infants to adults,” said Colleen Moore, a 70-year-old Napa resident. “Because there’s one thing we have to have – the most important we have to have — is water. … This is a big increase on a monthly basis, and for the working class and older people, it’s going to be a big jump.”

Council members expressed their sympathies for those who soon will face higher bills, but warned that not bulking up the water system’s finances now would lead to more deterioration and higher bills for a network that requires investment no matter the level of use.

“It’s getting more expensive to live in these wonderful areas we live in, but I don’t know that we have a choice,” said Scott Sedgley. “Water has been a great bargain, and for how much we need it, it’s still a good bargain. But it is hard. It is hard when every bill goes up – sewer, sanitation, water. But we have an obligation to maintain our water system and keep it fiscally solvent.”

Directors of the city Water Division have called the new pricing structure a necessity to meet upkeep expenses that have remained constant, even as drought and California’s resulting conservation mandates have held water sales and revenue down.

The department has said the higher rates will allow it to double its yearly capital investment to $6 million to support a network of two watersheds, three treatment plants and 14 storage tanks and 350 miles of pipes – including about 20 miles of pipeline in service for nearly a century.

Napa reported a falloff in water sales revenue from $27 million in the 2013-14 fiscal year to $22.2 million by 2016-17, $6.7 million less than the city had previously forecast. The decline played out during California’s most severe drought since the early 1990s, which led the state to require cities to cut their water use by 25 percent starting in 2015.

Plans for the Napa water system also include adding pipes beneath Highway 29 and along Third Street, as well as treatment-plant upgrades to lower the level of trihalomethanes, a chlorination by-product that scientific studies indicate may increase cancer and other health risks in extremely high concentrations.

Under the water rate package, a household with a monthly water consumption of 5,000 gallons can expect its monthly bill to go from the current $28 to $35 next year, and on to $47 in 2022, the city stated in its mailing. Bills for low-use customers consuming only 2,000 gallons a month would double from $11 to $22 in 2018 and eventually reach $33 in five years.

Set to take effect Dec. 1 and start appearing on customer bills in February, the new pricing plan sets a base charge for all water customers, which starts at $28.59 every two months for addresses connected to a ¾-inch pipe and goes up for larger water lines. That baseline would go up each October for four years – to $33.02 in 2018, $38.16 in 2019, $42.95 in 2020 and $48.58 in 2021.

Under the current system, Napa imposes a fixed charge only on single-family homes, starting at $16.72 bimonthly.

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The new package also charges customers for every 1,000 gallons of water consumed, instead of imposing such pricing only on those using at least 4,000 gallons a month.

Quantity charges will start at $4.07 per 1,000 gallons for residential customers, rising each October to $4.23, $4.34, $4.46 and $4.57 over the next four years. Multifamily and commercial buildings would pay higher rates, as would irrigation-based businesses.

To soften the blow for lower-income Napans, the water rate package increases a city subsidy from $4.75 to $25 per month for families enrolled in PG&E’s power subsidy program.

In September, Napa mailed notices of the planned water rate hikes to its customers 45 days ahead of Tuesday’s council vote as dictated by Proposition 218, the 1996 state law that governs tax and rate increases. Ratepayers can block a local government from considering the hike if a majority declare their opposition by mailing back their notices, but email, fax or verbal statements do not count toward the vote total.

Jack Gray of the Napa County Taxpayers Association conceded that getting the thousands of protest letters necessary to choke off the water-rate increase was unrealistic given low election turnout rates in general – “I can’t get to 50 percent plus one between myself, my wife and our two dogs,” he cracked – but told council members the number of opposition votes should serve as a signal of resistance to excessive fees.

“What that tells you is there’s a lot of people, like you’ve heard some of them tonight, that do not appreciate having a rate increase that they do not get to participate in,” said Gray, a Napa resident for nearly six decades. “If you get 2,000 people who object, there’s 10 times that many people out there that are objectors. They just haven’t read their mail, haven’t taken the time to give you the feedback you’re getting tonight.”

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Howard Yune covers the city of Napa and the town of Yountville. He has been a reporter and photographer for the Register since 2011, and previously wrote for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat, Anaheim Bulletin and Coos Bay (Oregon) World.