Thursday, September 9, 2010
Can city residents expect to see a 5 percent water rate hike in the near future? Senior Metro Reporter Alison St. John joins us to discuss the latest proposal to raise the water rates in San Diego.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Another water rate increase is proposed for the city of San Diego. If approved, critics say it will make city water rates about 65% higher next year than they were back in 2007. The mayor's office says the rate increase is necessary, but at least one city councilmember isn't buying that. KPBS senior metro reporter Alison St John joins us. And good morning, Alison.
ALISON ST JOHN (KPBS Senior Metro Reporter): Good morning, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: Why is the mayor’s office proposing another water rate increase?
ST JOHN: Well, water is rapidly becoming the liquid gold of this region, isn’t it? I mean, the population is growing and the sources of water is not. So the mayor’s office has done an analysis and basically they can see that $25 million more is what it’s going to cost the city next year because of the cost that is being charged the city by the County Water Authority. And then when you go back up the pipeline, behind them is the Southern California Regional Authority, that’s the Metropolitan Water Authority. So if MWA, the Metropolitan Water Authority, charges more to the County then the County charges more to the City, and the City has to pass it on to the residents. That’s the argument. And I think one of the reasons that this is attracting some attention is that the City did, three years ago, do a four-year plan to raise rates pretty substantially and this pass through, as they’re calling is, was not included. So residents are like, well, hey, wait a minute, didn’t we just have a big water rate increase? Why more now?
CAVANAUGH: So what kind of a water rate increase are – is the mayor’s office talking about?
ST JOHN: It would be about 5% for the average family. They were estimating that they pay about $68.00 a month currently for water and it would go up to about $72.00 a month. For bigger users, it would be a much more substantial increase. For example, people with the largest water pipes currently are paying about $3150.00 a month and it would go up to $3275.00, so they’d be paying, you know, about $120.00 a month more for the very large users.
CAVANAUGH: And if it’s approved, when would it go into effect?
ST JOHN: January of next year.
CAVANAUGH: I see, so it’s looming. Councilman Carl DeMaio spoke out yesterday against the latest increase. What is he saying about that?
ST JOHN: Well, he is using this, really, as a way to leverage an issue that he feels is very important, which is that I think he would like to see costs brought down, labor costs brought down, at the City. He’s interested in looking at privatizing many city services so he is saying, look, the costs at the water department have actually gone up, the costs at the County Water Authority have gone up, and even the Metropolitan Water Authority is under some attack at the moment for not having kept its costs down. So he would like to use this as leverage to try to bring down costs and increase efficiency. He’s saying, you know, that the Bid to Goal program, which is one of the programs at the city to create more efficiency has actually just generated more unaccountable bonuses. And so, you know, his argument is let’s have a look at more efficiency before we raise the rates.
CAVANAUGH: But as you said, the cost of water itself is increasing.
ST JOHN: Absolutely, yes. I mean, it’s to do with – Water is becoming more and more of a valuable commodity here in California and I think everybody, we just have to adapt to the fact that this is not something we can take for granted. We’re still not really paying the true value of water, so a lot of new infrastructure is being built to bring it in and reservoirs to save it and recycling plants to generate it, and this all costs money.
CAVANAUGH: Now just to stay with Councilman DeMaio for a minute, what would he like to see happen instead of these rate increases?
ST JOHN: So he would like to see the Natural Resources Committee that met yesterday do a quarterly overview of cost-cutting measures at the county – the city water department. He would also support the idea of having the City get on board with a lawsuit that is currently being filed by the County against Metropolitan for not fairly allocating costs. There’s some claims that San Diego might be paying a little more than its fair share and subsidizing other regions. And so there is – there are suits in the works right now that the City is not on board with, and there are good reasons why the City is not on board, because apparently the Metropolitan Water Authority could refuse to fund the recycling plant that we’ve all heard about out in Carlsbad, the Poseidon one. So there’s a certain amount of question as to whether it would be wise for the city to get involved in that lawsuit if it threatened funding for one of our most important new sources of water.
CAVANAUGH: There were also some voices yesterday, Alison, that said, you know, raising these rates during a time of recession is not a good idea, asking them to please think about delaying them until perhaps the recession turns around for the sake of small business owners.
ST JOHN: Well, Andy Hollingworth, who is a member of a citizens committee, the last time the rates went up, one of the things that happened was that a citizens committee was formed to oversee the rate increases so that citizens could feel, okay, we have some volunteer representatives here taking a good look at these rate increases and they will tell us if they’re justified or not. So most of that committee have signed off on this and said, yes, we really do need to raise these rates. If we try to cover these increased costs ourselves, we’ll just get into financial trouble and we’ll lose our good credit rating, so that most people are signing off on them. But one member, Andy Hollingworth, he is personally opposed to these and he is saying that he would like to speak for small businesses and suggest that perhaps the City press for delays in raising the rates until the economy improves. That’s one of his suggestions. And he also wants the City to join in this lawsuit. He is – has many similar opinions to Councilman Carl DeMaio.
CAVANAUGH: I wonder, in covering this, Alison, do you think that there is – there’s some way that the City should be explaining to people why if they’re cutting back in their water usage that their water bills keep going up?
ST JOHN: Well, yes, and at the meeting yesterday there were some surveys of how much the city has reduced its water use on average. Apparently the city of San Diego has reduced its – the residents’ water usage by about 13%, which is above goal, so there was a lot of appreciation, I think, of the way people are getting it. And I should mention that although we’re talking about the city of San Diego, this is playing out in cities and water districts all around the region, so it’s the same story really wherever you look. But the fact of the matter is that at the moment, the sources of water are not getting any bigger. The population is growing. It’s growing. It’s going to continue growing fairly rapidly here in Southern California. And it could be defined as one of the major problems this region is facing. I mean, civilizations have sunk because of lack of water so…
CAVANAUGH: This is true.
ST JOHN: …the citizens need to sort of gradually adapt, and I think they are adapting in terms of cutting their water use. But, of course, the irony is that when the water agencies sell less water, they have less money to cover their costs but they still have to keep building the infrastructure that we need in order to provide a safe water supply.
CAVANAUGH: So what is the process in this proposal now? This water rate increase proposal? Where do we go from here and when do we see – do we expect to see it approved?
ST JOHN: Well, the city council is going to be talking about it in a couple of weeks, and it’s a very well-defined process in which they send out letters to everybody’s – Everybody should be getting a letter in the mail saying here’s what the proposal is. There’s been complaints in the past that those letters just get tossed in the trash because they look like junk mail so they’re spending more money on beefing up the appearance of this letter so everybody really gets it, that this is in the offing. But then the level at which protests, you know, you’d have to have an extremely large number of people protesting and writing in and saying, no, we reject this in order for it not to go through, so I haven’t heard anybody hold out much hope that it’s not going to happen.
CAVANAUGH: Alison, thank you so much.
ST JOHN: My pleasure, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with KPBS senior metro reporter Alison St John. If you’d like to comment, please go online, KPBS.org/thesedays. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.