The economic pinch so many are already feeling is drawing painful yelps this week as one of the Mother Lode’s lead water and sewer districts rolled out its plans for a proposed rate hike.
At Ebbetts Pass Fire District Monday night, Calaveras County Water District (CCWD) General Manager Michael Minkler, CCWD staff and rate study consultant Habib Isaac from Temecula-based IB Consulting helmed the first of three public workshops to provide plan presentations and receive public comments. Two more similar events this week begin at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 16, at Copperopolis Armory and Thursday, Aug. 17, at Jenny Lind Veterans Hall.
These outreach efforts come ahead of the CCWD board’s next regular meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 13, when it will consider adopting the planned rate adjustment after a public hearing session. The meeting time has been moved from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. in order to accommodate those interested in attending who may be coming from work.
The high cost of doing business over the past three years, continuing struggles to maintain and improve the infrastructure, and the fact that the district is currently operating with a projected deficit are among the reasons for the proposed increases. Although the district has a list of capital improvement projects totaling well over $200 million, the FY 2024 plan calls for attending to a pared down list at a cost of about $90 million in funds and funded grants, and hopefully getting more grant monies awarded to help pay for the rest.
In a nutshell, the rate adjustment plan for the next five years, which if passed, would go into effect in October, is bound to be an eye-boggler for nearly every customer and will without a doubt have a significant impact on those who are already struggling to make ends meet.
CCWD currently provides water service to about 13,080 municipal and residential/commercial customers in six service areas throughout Calaveras, and sewer service to about 4,848 customers in 12 service areas. Billing is bi-monthly but figures provided by CCWD were designed to illustrate average monthly impact per household.
Water costs could double
Based on an average residential water use of 187 gallons per day, a current monthly water service rate of $68.96 would in year one of the proposed five-year plan increase by around $14.59 to $83.55. In year two the cost would rise $15.10 per month to $98.64. In year three the cost would go up another $15.84 to $114.48. In year four, the monthly impact would increase to about $18.35 to $132.83, and in year five the monthly impact would go up around $19.96 to $152.79.
Wastewater services, based on a monthly average residential cost of $105.32, will in year one see a rising impact of about $14.38 per month to $119.70; in year two, $16.75 to $136.45; year three $19.10 to $155.55; year four $21.78 to $177.32 and in year five a smaller increase of $5.32 to $182.63.
These are maximum estimates for annual increases, meaning the CCWD board would be able to, as it has under past five-year plans, call for lesser increases when there are improvements in financial circumstances such as grant awards and decreases in operational costs.
CCWD’s current water and wastewater five-year rate plan was adopted back in May 2018. Last October the district brought on IB Consulting to do a Cost of Service and Financial Analysis Study. This past spring it presented preliminary water and wastewater five-year financial analysis models to the CCWD Finance Committee, and later to the board. Through meetings, staff and board focused on strategies to reduce key factors behind a projected year one revenue shortfall, which led to further cost-of-service analyses and rate design work, the latter of which triggered the board’s decision in July to initiate a Proposition 218 noticing process and public rate hearing Sept. 13.
Mailings went out by July 25 to provide a 50-day noticing period and the Prop 218 notice, providing details of the process and intentions, which are posted here: ccwd.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/07/Final-Prop-218-Notice.pdf. There is also a process for protesting the rate increase proposal, which calls for making written submissions before the hearing date.
As Minkler states in his message to CCWD customers: “There is no sugar-coating this — the proposed rate increases are significant. If there was a better alternative, CCWD would pursue it. But underfunding CCWD would ultimately cost our communities more than these proposed rate increases. We need a generational investment in our water and wastewater infrastructure, and we ask for your understanding.”
Rate hike = real hardships
About 45 members of the public showed up at the Ebbetts Pass meeting and over a dozen more attended virtually via a Microsoft Teams meeting link. Minkler shared that the past five years presented a constant struggle to cover everything necessary without a rate increase.
Following the presentations the public comments from the live attendees went on for about 40 minutes, during which a vocal handful weighed in sharing great distress over the increases. One woman shouted, “You can’t figure it out by dumping on us … because we cannot pay.”
With obvious woe in her voice another woman stated, “You’re not going to get the money from a lot of the people because they don’t have it.” In addition to rising utility costs and many residents dealing with the high cost of insurance, she pointed to how the county’s majority senior population is having to deal with increasing costs to attend to medical issues and pay for prescriptions. “It’s got to stop somewhere. … Stop the profiteering at the top.”
Speaking with the Calaveras Enterprise Tuesday morning, Minkler confided: “A lot of business owners and community members came up after (the meeting). None of them like it but they get it … would rather have the water be there and higher rates versus lower rates and uncertainty (of reliable service).”
He stressed that the importance of the water system to the community cannot be underestimated. “We need to find ways to address (helping) low-income water customers. Like Supervisor Huberty said at the meeting, it is not just a water issue — we need to come together as a community — because it doesn’t make sense to address it by underfunding the water structure.”
As a member of the water industry, CCWD is among many districts trying to address the affordability crisis. Minkler says more needs to be done on many levels and that the state, instead of talking about it, needs to provide more infrastructure funding and direct rate payers’ assistance.
CCWD is not allowed to charge different rates for different income levels but through an in-house program funded by hydropower revenues has been able to provide financial relief totaling around $43,000 to about 50 CCWD customers since June of 2022. There is also the statewide Low Income Household Water Assistance Program (LIHWAP) ending this year through which the Amador Tuolumne Community Action Agency (ATCAA) has been providing one-time bill assistance.
Minkler admits these programs are only band-aids. “We (at CCWD) sympathize and understand the frustration and wish we didn’t have to impose the increase — but if we don’t fund it the impact will be larger than the impact of if we don’t. We need other agencies and community leaders and a statefunded solution.”
He adds that one of the ideas that came out of the Ebbetts Pass workshop was to establish a committee of volunteers — a local agency task force to interact with the community of rate-payers who are hardest hit. The biggest takeaway, he says, besides continuing to work at the state level, “We need to come together as a community and address the needs.”