By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
If you were compelled to water your lawn this winter but worry your Santa Rosa sewer bill will soar because of it, fear not.
The city’s Board of Public Utilities signed off on a plan Thursday to change the way sewer rates are calculated to ensure ratepayers aren’t penalized for irrigating during one of the driest winters on record.
The board unanimously approved a plan to calculate next year’s sewer bills using people’s water usage from this winter or from last winter, whichever was lower.
The change should appease ratepayers concerned that their sewer bills would spike next year because they watered their lawns and plants during the winter, which in normal years is largely unnecessary.
“We have been getting tons of calls throughout the winter about it,” said Patty Kutches, revenue manager in the city’s utilities department.
The water flowing into a home is tracked by meters, but wastewater leaving the home must be estimated.
Sewer bills are calculated by multiplying the sewer rate, which is currently $12 per thousand gallons, by the number of gallons of water estimated to be used from the toilet and tap each month, known as the sewer cap.
During normally wet winter months, from November to March, the city assumes no irrigation is occurring at homes and businesses, and sets the average of those months as the sewer cap, which is used to calculate sewer bills for the following year.
If for example, a homeowner uses 4,000 gallons on average in the winter, the sewer usage charge will be $48 per month. If that same homeowner irrigates their lawn and usage increases to 12,000 gallons, their monthly sewer bill would soar to $144 per month.
The utilities department has created a billing program that will automatically compare the two years of winter usage and use the lower of the two to calculate 2012-2013 bills, Kutches explained.
Board member Stephen Gale said the move demonstrates that the board, which has raised water and sewer rates by 116 percent over the last decade, is sensitive to ratepayers’ concerns about higher bills.