By SAM SCOTT
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The Petaluma City Council voted 5-2 Monday to raise water and sewer rates while attaching future rate hikes to the pace of inflation.
The water bill for a typical Petaluma resident will increase 3.8 percent in the new year to $36.92, with heavier users seeing larger increases.
The sewer bill for the same home will increase 2.6 percent to $63.83, with small industrial customers seeing the largest increase — nearly 12 percent.
Officials said the increased revenue is needed to fund investments in the water system, pay down the debt on the recently opened Ellis Creek sewer treatment plant, and upgrade the city’s wastewater collection system. Even with the increases, City Manager John Brown said the utility funds were running “bare-bones” budgets.
The hikes are the smallest rate increases in Petaluma in years, but some residents were still angry, wanting a break after years of soaring bills, particularly for sewer service.
Rick Brown, a Petaluma resident, said he has installed low-flow toilets, drip irrigation systems and other water conservation measures in recent years, but the water bill for his family of four has continued to climb even as they used less water.
“The last four years have just been absurd,” he said. “It looks to me it’s going to continue in that direction.”
For the past five years, Petaluma water rates have increased 5 percent a year. Wastewater rates, meanwhile, increased 13 percent annually until this year, when the increase was 9 percent, driven largely by costs related to the Ellis Creek sewer treatment plant.
Vice Mayor Mike Healy presented several ideas Monday to reduce the size of the rate increases. If the city increased its use of ground water, it could ease its reliance on water purchased from the Sonoma County Water Agency, he said.
But others on the council said they were uncomfortable with an “eleventh-hour” recommendation delaying a process that has goes back more than a year.
The rate increases were the lowest possible while still meeting the city’s fiscal requirements, Councilwoman Teresa Barrett said.
“We just need to suck it up and do it,” she said. “It’s not easy, but it’s what we have to do.”
Healy and Councilman Mike Harris voted against the rate increases.
In future years, the city will automatically pass on increases in the wholesale cost of water that it purchases from the Sonoma County Water Agency.
Moreover, water rates will rise each year in accordance with increases to the San Francisco Consumer Price Index, which tracks the price of goods and services in the Bay Area.
This year, the annual CPI in August — which is the proposed trigger month — rose 2.9 percent.
Wastewater rates will rise by the CPI increase plus 1.5 percent, an additional charge to help cover the costs of rehabilitation projects, debt repayment and ongoing operations, according to the city.