The Sebastopol City Council deferred taking action on a proposal to sharply increase water and sewer rates until alternative, lower hikes can be explored.
“I’d like to see a few more options,” said Vice Mayor Mike Kyes. “I’d like to look at increases that bring the operating fund to positive, but where we could pursue municipal funding for repairs.”
City Manager Jack Griffin warned, however, that without a dedicated fund set aside for rehabilitation and repairs of the aging systems, system failures that will surely occur will end up costing more to repair on an emergency basis.
“Right now you have no flexibility, right now the staff has no flexibility. I am trying to create flexibility so we are not behind the eight ball,” Griffin said.
The city staff had recommended sharp increases over the next four years in water and sewer rates to meet operating costs, pay for maintenance and to fund replacement of pipes and equipment.
“I believe with the proposed increases, while painful, we get the deficit under control, we can put together a reasonable plan with the replacement, and we don’t hit the general fund,” Griffin said.
The water system would cost $29.8 million to replace and needs an estimated $453,000 a year in maintenance and replacement.
The sewage system has a replacement value of $24.2 million and needs $485,000 a year to maintain and replacement.
Without an increase in rates, operation and maintenance for both systems will end up having to be paid for out of the city’s general fund, which is already stretched, beginning this next fiscal year.
“We need to have a solvent system, we cannot just deficit spend,” Griffin said. “I don’t want to be in the position of having to lay off people in public works or two or three police officers because the city has been underfunding the system.”
Kyes said, however, he wanted to see lower increases and the possibility of seeking financing for capital projects as needed.
Councilwoman Kathleen Shaffer asked for a rate structure that would offer lower rates for low-income families.
Councilwoman Sarah Gurney wanted a report on how much the city has already spent on the systems, what are the priorities for repairs and an option for lower increases stretched over a longer period of time.
Under the staff’s proposal, water rates would be increased 25 percent for this next fiscal year beginning in July, 22 percent in 2013-14, 18 percent in 2014-15 and 15 percent in 2015-16.
A typical resident who now pays a water bill of $129.42 a year would see an annual water bill of $177.98 for 2012-2013, $217.14 for 2013-2014, $256.20 for 2014-2015 and $298.66 for 2015-2016, according to the proposal.
Sewer rates would be increased 12 percent per year over four years, under the proposal.
Sewer rates that are now typically $307.80 a year would be $426.54 for 2012-2013; $477.72 for 2013-2014; $535.02 for 2014-2015 and $599.22 for 2015-2016, according to the proposal.
Sebastopol gets water from four wells and pipes its sewage to the Santa Rosa subregional sewage system. The city’s water and sewer systems are intended to be self-supporting, with the fees covering all costs.
Peter Mancus of Sebastopol, however, complained the city has not made its case that repairs have to be made.
“I haven’t been sold on the idea that they need to be replaced,” Mancus said. “I don’t want to be on the receiving end of a rate increase if there is no need for it.”
Virginia Porter of Sebastopol, who said she was a former utility district administrator, supports an increase.
“It represents a sense of responsible custodianship, I believe this is what you have to do,” Porter said.
You can reach Staff Writer Bob Norberg at 521-5206 or firstname.lastname@example.org.