Councilwoman Susan Hitchcock voiced concerns about the proposed wastewater rate structures at Tuesday morning's Lodi City Council meeting, saying she didn't want to overcharge residents.
The council is re-evaluating and considering decreasing wastewater rates they approved in July 2009. The council approved a four-year wastewater rate increase, in part to pay for state-mandated upgrades at the White Slough water treatment plant.
The city already raised rates in the last fiscal year, which ended June 30, to the expected 25 percent increase.
City staff had planned to increase rates by 35 percent over the next three years, but now rates may only increase by 22 percent.
But Hitchcock said she is still not comfortable with the reduction in wastewater rates because she believes the estimate still reflects old information, which assumes the groundwater cleanup project will cost about $70 million.
New figures indicate the undertaking might not be as pricey as was once expected, city officials said. Lodi may only have to spend $20 million to $25 million to rid the soil and groundwater of the potentially carcinogenic pollutants PCE and TCE.
"The interim remedy looks like it worked," Jeff Hood, city spokesman, said. "It's like the Titanic hit an iceberg, and it glanced off and didn't sink. That's the hope."
The rates are calculated to anticipate a $70 million cleanup that does not exist, Hitchcock said, generating a price tag that is unfair to the rate payers, especially with the poor state of the economy.
"People today have financial challenges. The impact is now — that's my concern," she added. "This is just not the time to raise any rates."
Director of Public Works Wally Sandelin said council members could reduce rates if they chose, but cautioned against it.
"I believe that the discussion to lower rates is certainly a valid one, but I believe there are some uncertainties in the PCE cleanup world and also some strategic moves to make in financing a surface water treatment plant," Sandelin said.
Both Hitchcock and Councilwoman JoAnne Mounce requested Sandelin create a new rate estimate without including the cleanup.
Hitchcock also suggested using a $15 million reserve to cover cleanup expenses instead of increasing wastewater costs. The reserve comes from years of an additional PCE/TCE cleanup fee tacked onto water bills.
Used to pay the city's legal and cleanup costs, the excess money was kept in preparation for future cleanup expenditures. But now that the damage is deemed less extensive, Hitchcock said she would consider using the reserve to reduce the burden on rate payers.
Yet even with the additional fees associated with the groundwater cleanup, Sandelin said the 22 percent wastewater increase is down from a previously calculated estimate, and water costs are comparatively inexpensive to past estimates.
Meanwhile, the council is also considering a 2 percent increase in water rates over the same three years.
The average per capita use in Lodi is 220 gallons per person, per day. With five people in a household it wouldn't be hard to reach 1,000 gallons a day, Sandelin said. However, a 20,000-gallon swimming pool would only cost about $30 to fill, he added, making the price of water still relatively economical.
Though the city is attempting to use a meter program to encourage water conservation, officials say they are easing residents into the new rate structure with education and comparative billing.
"Those people who have a habit of using a lot of water aren't going to get slapped as hard," Sandelin said.
Because the council is approving the 2 percent water rate increase for the first time, the city is mandated by state law to send out a notice of the recommended increase and how residents can protest it. If half of the city's property owners protest the increase, it will not go into effect.
Hood said he does not have an estimate of how many protests the city has received, but the number will be announced at today's meeting.
Council members will vote on the rate changes and discuss the proposed surface water treatment facility on Wednesday at 7 p.m. in Carnegie Forum, 305 W. Pine St., Lodi.
Contact reporter Mollie Bloudoff-Indelicato at email@example.com.
To protest the water rate increase
The city is recommending a 2 percent increase in water rates over the next three years. Because the council is approving the 2 percent water rate increase for the first time, the city is mandated by state law to send out a notice of the recommended increase and ratepayers can protest it.
If half of the city's property owners protest the increase, it will not go into effect.
Ratepayers can protest the increase by sending letters to Lodi City Clerk, P.O. Box 3006, Lodi, CA 95241.
All protest letters must be received before today's public hearing at 7 p.m. in Carnegie Forum, 305 W. Pine St.
Lodi City Council meeting at a glance
Key items to be discussed:
- Approve the initial study and the plans and specifications for the surface water treatment plant. Approve advertising for bids and investigating bond financing for the plant.
- Consider advisory wastewater and water rates.
- Consider hiring consultants to do work plan preparation and monitoring the construction of two groundwater extraction wells, nine soil vapor extraction wells and treatment facilities for the groundwater cleanup.
When and where: 7 p.m., Carnegie Forum, 305 W. Pine St., Lodi.
— News-Sentinel staff.