Tue09162014

News

Council approves change in billing for sewer services:

Crunching the numbers

The Los Altos City Council last week approved a change in the city’s method for charging for sewer services.

The council voted unanimously to switch from an annual water-use-based sewer-service charge per parcel – first used in fiscal year 2008-2009 – to a hybrid model that includes water-use charges and an annual fixed-cost component.

According to a city staff report, the annual per-parcel fixed charge would fund operations such as annual maintenance and treatment costs.

Prior to 2008-2009, the city employed an annual fixed sewer-service charge depending on its use.

The report noted that water conservation efforts by residents have resulted in lower than anticipated billings to cover fixed, maintenance and administrative costs for the city’s aging sewer system. Specifically, the report indicated that 25 percent of parcels paid less than $240 annually in the first year of using the water-use-based model. In fiscal year 2012-2013, 36 percent paid less than $240, according to the report.

Prior to casting her vote, Councilwoman Megan Satterlee said she was convinced that the city needed to adopt the hybrid model years ago after noticing that some properties with sewer connections – such as those under construction or homes only inhabited for part of the year – paid little or nothing under the city’s water-use-based sewer-service charge system.

“Whether you put 1 gallon of sewage down the line or 500 gallons of sewage, you need a pipe to go from your house to the sewer treatment plant. … You need to pay for the privilege of just having that sewer connection,” she said, adding that switching to the hybrid model creates “equity in the system.”

Councilwoman Jan Pepper agreed, noting that other service providers – such as electric utilities – typically charge a fixed-cost component as well. She added that the hybrid model is an equitable approach that doesn’t necessarily punish water conservers.

“I think the hybrid model is a good model. … If part of it is to cover fixed costs and part of it is based on the variable use of water, then there still will be some kind of incentive for people to try to conserve water and not waste water,” she said.

Reached by the Town Crier, Public Works Director Jim Gustafson said the switch should level the playing field, noting that the city’s water-use model left average to above-average users subsidizing those who used less.

While the actual dollar figure for the new fixed-cost component is still being determined, Gustafson said he expects an annual charge between $200 and $240. Those figures, he added, fall more closely in line with annual charges paid prior to the city’s switch to the water-use model – parcels paid a $285 fixed rate in 2007-2008.

Gustafson said the city is preparing a five-year sewer-rate study, which will require a protest hearing in June prior to posting increases on the county’s tax roll for fiscal year 2013-2014. The study will be presented at Tuesday’s council meeting.

As part of the city’s required noticing process under state Proposition 218, a sewer-rate ordinance will be introduced publicly in June.

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