By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Water and sewer rates will go up about 3 percent per year for the next two years after the Santa Rosa City Council reluctantly approved the latest in a decade-long series of rate increases.
The increases mean that by 2013, the average single-family home occupants in Santa Rosa will be paying 116 percent more for water and sewer service than they were a decade earlier.
All council members expressed regret at the increases, but said the city Board of Public Utilities has made its case that the increases were need to boost reserves, stabilize revenues and continue to upgrade the city’s network of water pipes and treatment plants.
“It is with regret but the feeling of necessity that I will approve the rate increase,” Councilman John Sawyer said.
The council voted 6-1, with Gary Wysocky voting against the increases. He said he was concerned that city residents are paying higher rates than neighboring cities, most of which operate under many of the same environmental regulations cited as driving the increases.
Some residents expressed outrage not only that rates were rising, but that the ratepayers who use the least water would be seeing a higher percentage increase than high-volume water users.
By 2013, those customers using a mere 1,000 per month, will face an 11.4 percent increase in their combined water and sewer bills, while the large-volume customers, those using 22,000 gallons a month in the summer, will see a 5.6 percent increase.
That’s largely because the fixed-amount portion of the rate is going up sharply — 18 percent in 2012 and another 15 percent in 2013. While the increases are relatively small, just $1.50 next year and another $1.50 the following year, many residents seized on the disparity as a sign of inequity.
Resident Gerald Niimi said enacting higher increases on the lowest-volume users “regressive and so arrogant.”
“It may be legal but I think it’s morally wrong,” Niimi said.
City staff and members of the Board of Public Utilities made a lengthy presentation that explained the myriad reasons why the increases were needed. They said they worked hard to balance the needs keeping the system running with the board’s strong desire to limit increases on ratepayers.
They stressed that the increases are modest compared to the 9 percent increases that have persisted for the past eight years.
“We believe these rates minimize the impact to our ratepayers during very difficult times while maintaining the integrity of our water and wastewater system,” BPU vice chairman Stephen Gale told the council.
The city received 162 written protests to the rate increases, but 24,000 people would have needed to file protests to block them.
Some of the residents who opposed the increases were very upset.
Mike Crozier said he’s done everything he can think of to lower his water and sewer bills, even taken some measures that he was embarrassed to mention,.
“Why can’t I flush my toilet? I can’t afford it!” Crozier said.
Occupy Santa Rosa protestor Ron Keating held up an empty wallet for the council to see. He said he’s broke after paying his bills and that many people he knows in the community are suffering.
“They have no way to take on this additional burden,” Keating said.
DJ Phimister, a construction manager who lives in southwest Santa Rosa, said most ratepayers look at the history of increases and see no end in sight.
“I think part of the issue here is people just don’t trust government anymore,” Phimister said.
The average homeowner, defined as someone using 5,000 gallons a month in winter and 12,000 gallons in the summer months, will see the combined water and sewer bill go up about $144 per month now to $153 in 2013, a 6.4 percent increase.
In 2003, that average bill was $70.95.
Council members said they sympathize with the unhappy rate payers. Scott Bartley said of his bill, ‘I gasp every time I see it.”
But most council members agreed that the BPU was taking a modest, prudent action, and that it was wise to continue regularly replacing aging pipe to prevent the kinds of accidents that often occur in cities that neglect their infrastructure.
“We would do a huge disservice to our community if we didn’t look at the repair and replacement of those pipes under the ground,” Susan Gorin said.