Santa Rosa plots water tariff hike, grapples with overdue pandemic bills

As $ 1.4 million in long-awaited municipal water bills pile up due to the coronavirus pandemic, Santa Rosa is moving forward with a plan to increase utility rates this summer while adding new penalties for high usage in times of drought.

Santa Rosa water utility staff presented a proposal last week to increase water customer rates by 2% effective July 1, with annual rate increases of 3% to 4% expected to from 2022.

An analysis from the city indicates that the typical residential water bill would increase on average by $ 2.38 per month, or $ 28.56 in the first year of the new rate plan, with larger increases in subsequent years. This includes annual increases in the wastewater rate of 2%.

The plan comes as the city grapples with the impact of COVID-19. Water officials decided in March 2020 to avoid cutting service for non-payment and waiving late fees, and they are now trying to work with 1,700 accounts, or around 3% of Santa Rosa customers. whose invoices are over 90 days past due. .

The city’s billing system was not designed to take into account the possibility of a customer not paying their water bill for three months or more, forcing staff to manually track long overdue bills, Kimberly Zunino, deputy director of the city’s water administration, told a city council last week.

The outstanding balance does not create an “unmanageable financial burden” for the water utility, and city staff will be flexible with overdue customers to create payment plans with “any” conditions, Zunino said.

“With our restrictive regulations on our rates, we cannot just forgive account balances, so we will continue to work on collecting and assisting customers with any help that may be available to them,” Zunino said.

City Council will vote on the proposed rate increases on May 25.

Board members expressed interest in finding ways to help customers struggling with overdue bills during the pandemic.

They also alarmed the prospect of drought conditions, for which the city plans to charge additional costs for high water use in times of scarcity.

“We always hate to see these rates go up,” said Councilor Jack Tibbetts, adding, “This will probably be the worst drought we’ve ever seen. I think that’s the right direction.

This Santa Rosa effort to reorganize its water and wastewater service charges, like so many initiatives in recent years, arose in part from the Tubbs fire in October 2017. The city contracted in 2018 with The Reed Group, a Sacramento-based consulting firm specializing in water and wastewater financial management, to develop a 10-year financial plan.

The Reed Group, led by consultant Bob Reed, assisted Santa Rosa in planning for water-related disaster recovery and developed a new service cost analysis and new recommendations for utility charges. city ​​water and wastewater. The consultant’s contract also includes an update of the city’s water scarcity plan.

Santa Rosa’s upcoming rate changes would not reflect a significant change in city processes, Reed told city council.

“We are not making any significant changes to the pricing structures,” Reed said. “We just update the cost of service analysis and reflect the utility revenue needs. “

Reed also told the council about the new water scarcity charges, which are designed to reduce water consumption and support the financial condition of the distribution system when rainfall decreases – an increasingly common occurrence in a era of dramatic global warming driven by human activity.

Shortages can increase the cost of the water the city purchases from the Sonoma County Water Agency, which can result in utility expenses exceeding revenues and forcing the postponement of investment projects.

Last year’s rainy season was the third driest on record in Sonoma County. Current winter precipitation is well below what it should be, and this lack of rain has placed the county in various stages of drought from “moderate to” extreme, “according to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Drought Monitor. .

These water scarcity charges would be assessed based on eight stages of water scarcity conditions, starting with a voluntary 10% reduction in use and capping to mandatory limits of less than half of l typical use. In addition to this, “overuse penalties” for heavy water users could be assessed “to ensure enforcement of (water) allowances”, according to city documents.

Declarations of water scarcity that would trigger these user charges would have to be approved by City Council at a public meeting.

City officials have pointed out that if and when it declares water shortages under this plan, customers who follow the rules and use less water would, of course, have lower-than-normal bills. And Reed said overuse penalties aren’t something the city is banking on in its financial forecast.

“If any revenue is generated it would be used to help cover the costs associated with the shortage, replenishing the reserves that have been drawn,” Reed said.

You can contact editor Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or [email protected] On Twitter @wsreports.

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