The Los Altos City Council voted unanimously to adopt a five-year sewer service charge schedule following a formal protest hearing last week.
The city received 10 formal written protests to the new charges, which call for a hybrid service charge model consisting of annual base fees of $209 per dwelling, as well as a sewer-use charge of $1.66 per unit (745 gallons of wet-season metered water use) beginning in fiscal year 2013-2014.
California Proposition 218, which addresses local government finances, includes the requirement to hold a public hearing on such matters. A majority of written protests by the 11,700 affected parcel owners would have mandated the city to reject the new charges.
The five-year rate schedule includes annual increases of 7 percent, which would result in an annual base charge of $261.35 and sewer-use rates of $2.07 per unit in the final year of the schedule.
As previously reported in the Town Crier, the city opted to move forward with the new hybrid charging model in April – a change from its former service charge method, based solely on a parcel’s sewer use ($3.25 per sewer unit in fiscal year 2012-2013).
At the time, a staff report justified the change to cover fixed maintenance and administrative costs for the city’s aging sewer system. A portion of the funds generated under the new model will be applied toward upgrading the aging Palo Alto Regional Water Quality Control Plant, which has been in operation since 1934 and serves Los Altos, Los Altos Hills, Mountain View, Palo Alto, East Palo Alto and Stanford.
Councilwoman Megan Satterlee noted that the new model is a more equitable way to charge residents for the benefits of sewer service than the previous method.
“It became quickly apparent to me in the very first year (of the water-based use model) that we created a very inequitable system in that some users were paying significant amounts and some users were being subsidized. … The hybrid model really shares the costs much more equitably,” Satterlee said.
Water conservation efforts by residents resulted in lower than expected sewer charges under the old model, an April staff report noted. During the previous fiscal year, 36 percent of Los Altos parcels paid less than $240 annually under the old rate method. Prior to switching to the consumption-based method in 2008-2009, the city had charged an annual fixed fee of $285 per parcel in 2007-2008.
“I do appreciate that (the new charge schedule) is going to increase some people’s bills substantially,” Satterlee said in addressing residents at the hearing, “but your bill went down substantially from what it was prior to us going to a (water) usage model.”
Two residents at the July 9 hearing protested that the new charges posed an unfair burden.
Resident Stephanie Munoz said the new sewer charges “seem way too much. I resent the city’s position that everyone has to pay his or her fair share. Have we not been paying our fair share all these years?”
Joe McDonald added that he paid $91 last year and that the new model would result in a 263 percent increase for him. He said the 7 percent annual increases would result in a fifth-year base rate that is 25 percent higher than the first-year charge.
“Both my wife and I are retired and living on fixed incomes,” McDonald said. “I don’t think this is any way to treat a senior citizen.”