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Santa Barbara Council OKs 3.5% Water Rate Hike

Despite letters of protest and complaints, city backs across-the-board water, sewer, trash rate increases

Despite lending a sympathetic ear to requests from several public speakers not to increase city water rates, the Santa Barbara City Council on Tuesday backed the planned hike.

The meeting was the scene of the city’s annual rate hearing, and all customers had been notified of the proposed increase, which elicited 15 letters of protest, according to Bill Ferguson, the city’s water resources supervisor.

“This is really a horrible time to be raising rates for working people,” Maurya Murphy told the council. “Not everybody is affluent in this county.”

Lifetime resident Lola Rosales agreed, and said the increases would adversely affect people on fixed incomes, especially seniors.

“I’ve sat back and watched it go up and up and up,” she said. “Enough is enough.”

Rosales went on to say that her monthly utility bill is now around $150. “That’s a big sum to someone who doesn’t have the money,” she said.

Tuesday’s decision means an overall increase of 3.5 percent was approved for all monthly service charges and metered water usage. The average single-family residence will be seeing an increase of about $2 a month. Monthly usage of 12 hundred cubic feet, or HCF units, of water would increase the price to $61.39, and even though the rate has increased, it’s still lower than rates in Goleta, Montecito and Carpinteria, whose water district just approved rates that make it the highest of South Coast cities, at $80.46.

Santa Barbara residents can expect a 4 percent increase in waste water charges, which amounts to about $1 extra for an average home, to $32.93 from $31.67. They can also expect a waste collection increase of about 1 percent, which will mean $26.08 per month instead of $25.76.

A bright spot among the increases was the fact that water rates for agricultural uses will actually decrease, to $1.45 per HCF from $1.51. In addition, low-occupancy, special-needs public housing projects could also see a reduction.

However, buy-in fees, those associated with new connections to water and waste water, or when a building needs a larger water meter, increased dramatically with Tuesday’s decision. An increase to $5,691 from $2,805 for new water connections, and to $4,118 from $2,240 for wastewater are dramatic and higher than other districts, Ferguson said.

“We do expect other districts in the neighborhood to be catching up with that as they invest more in infrastructure,” he said.

The rate increases are driven primarily by increased capital costs, Ferguson said, which come from an ongoing need to keep up maintenance and improve the waste water treatment plant. The 2007 Zaca Fire also created a strain on water treatment, creating an additional cost of $2 million a year, said Rebecca Bjork, water resources manager. A total of $1.5 million of that will be reimbursed by the state, but Bjork said the city probably will be on the line for the additional cost.

Because MarBorg Industries and Allied Waste Industries, both private companies, are in charge of the collection and disposal of waste, they determine how much of an increase to charge. The Tajiguas Landfill has increased what it charges per ton, forcing these companies to increase their rates for collection and disposal.

During public comment, Steve Little applauded city staff for keeping water rates down for agricultural uses, especially in light of how many avocado groves were destroyed in fires during the past year. The lower rates would give incentives to some of the growers to replant their groves, he said.

City Councilman Dale Francisco said all of the fees that support the water and waste water plants come from people who use them. Federal mandates, most of them environmental, cost the city money to enact.

“There’s no way for us to opt out of those,” he said. “And there’s no fair way to allocate those costs anywhere except to people who are actually using those services.”

Councilwoman Helene Schneider said residents should also take advantage of the city’s rebate program to use drought resistant plants in their yards, not only for cost but for conservation.

Click here for more water-saving tips. The city also offers free checkups for homes and businesses and will arrive on location to give feedback on how occupants can save water, Ferguson said.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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