Board balks at rate rollback in face of repair and replacement needs
Water and sewer rates won’t go up as planned this year, but neither will the increases of the previous two years be rolled back, the Calaveras County Water District Board of Directors decided Wednesday.
Three board members who won election in November – Bertha Underhill, Dennis Mills and Terry Strange – were advocates for the rate rollbacks. But after hearing from district staff about the effects of a rollback on the district’s ability to replace aging pumps, pipes and tanks, they decided instead to delay a rate hike planned for Sept. 1.
“We did something,” said board President Underhill. “This is why we are exploring other revenue streams.”
Had it been allowed to stand, the rate hike in September would have taken the monthly wastewater bill for a home to $90, an increase of $3.84 over the present rate. The base monthly water rate for a home would have risen to $61.89, an increase of $5.61 over the present rate.
Many district customers are retirees on fixed incomes, and board members reported hearing about their unhappiness with a series of annual rate increases that began in 2013.
The board that year approved the increases because of mounting problems with leaking pipes and other infrastructure. The district’s top priority for replacement right now, for example, is a sewage lift station in Copperopolis that could dump sewage into Tulloch Reservoir if it failed.
Another project on the list is replacing pipelines in Arnold that have ruptured in recent years, on one occasion sending a geyser of water onto cars on Highway 4.
The rate increases approved in 2013 are reserved entirely for repair and replacement of aging infrastructure and can’t be used for routine operations.
Acting on the board’s orders, General Manager Dave Eggerton prepared a range of options for scaling back the repair and replacement program and the rate hikes that support it.
In the most extreme scenario, the rates would have been rolled back by 10 percent. That would have reduced the money available for sewer repairs and replacement by almost $2 million over the next three years, and reduced funding for water system repair and replacement by almost $4.5 million over the next three years, according to Eggerton’s report.
At the same time, Eggerton asked the board to support a repair and replacement program that would spend $13.5 million on water infrastructure over the next three years and $4.5 million on sewer infrastructure.
Eggerton said he believes it is possible to achieve that goal over the next three years and still eliminate this year’s rate hike. Even so, he made the numbers work, in part, by assuming that the district will be able to secure grants to fund some of the projects.
Director Scott Ratterman objected that if the district doesn’t get the anticipated grants, it will be deeper in the hole or unable to complete needed projects.
“I think it is better to be conservative and plan and not assume we are going to have these grants,” Ratterman said.
Eggerton admitted that “flexibility would be constrained” without the rate increase, and that some projects probably would not be completed if grant funding is not available.
Eggerton also warned that if rates are cut too much, then it might be more difficult for the district to qualify for grants.
“The state wants to see that we are doing our share to pay for these projects,” Eggerton said.
Tuesday’s action only postpones the rate increase for one year. If the board does not take further action, the increase would go into effect on Sept. 1, 2016.
Board members say they are concerned as well about other projects planned beyond the three-year time horizon.
In other business Wednes-day, the CCWD board:
• Voted unanimously to approve environmental documents for a planned consolidation of the Wilseyville and West Point wastewater treatment plants into a single operation. The Wilseyville plant now serves 28 connections, while the West Point plant serves 165 connections. The consolidation will allow the plants to better comply with state water regulations and make use of wastewater treatment plans at the two facilities, according to a staff report.
• Voted unanimously to approve a resolution urging federal authorities to conserve water storage at New Melones Reservoir and Tulloch Reservoir and avert a possible draindown of Tulloch later this summer. Due to the drought, Melones is holding much less water than usual. Officials with the irrigation districts that operate Tulloch Reservoir, just below Melones on the Stanislaus River, are concerned that environmental releases from Melones are squandering water that will be needed late in the season to prevent Tulloch from suffering a draindown. CCWD serves 2,500 customers with water taken from Tulloch.