City report calls for sewer rate hikes

The price of doing, ahem, business may be going up for Los Altos residents.

An update to the city of Los Altos’ 2005 Sanitary Sewer Master Plan calls for annual service-charge increases that would more than double the average single-family monthly bill by fiscal year 2027.

The updated plan was set for review at Tuesday’s Los Altos City Council meeting, held after the Town Crier’s press deadline.

According to the report – presented Feb. 12 during a council study session – the monthly single-family bill in Los Altos could rise incrementally from its current average of $28.96 to approximately $63.60 per month by 2027. Residents now pay a rate of $3.25 per 100 cubic feet for sewage services.

Gradual increases

The report recommends annual 6 percent increases beginning fiscal year 2014 to fund, in part, a capital improvement program for the city’s aging sewer system. Nearly one-third of the annual service-charge increases would go toward debt service for upgrades to Palo Alto’s aging Regional Water Quality Control Plant. The plant has been in operation since 1934 and serves Los Altos, Los Altos Hills, Palo Alto, East Palo Alto, Mountain View and Stanford.

The report also suggests updating Los Altos’ geographic information system; expanding its fats, oil and grease control program; and adding one maintenance lead-worker position to meet the city’s maintenance and repair demands.

Reached by the Town Crier, Los Altos Public Works Director Jim Gustafson said that under Proposition 218, the rate increases are subject to local voter approval after a formal study by the city.

Capital improvements for the more than 50-year-old system would address immediate and long-term structural issues, including corrosion rehabilitation and sewer-pipe replacement, as well as annual maintenance costs over the 15-year period. Representatives from consulting firm Brown and Caldwell specifically noted that 36 reaches (sections of sewer between structures) in the city’s trunk sewer main, which flows to the regional plant in Palo Alto, have moderate to severe corrosion.

“Sewers, if properly designed, should be self-cleaning,” said Gustafson, who attributed the proposed service charge increments to water rate increases, the need to replace aging equipment and rising labor costs. “In reality, there are going to be a few trouble spots that need to be repaired over time. … All cities are under pressure to do capital work on their systems.”

Addressing the report, Gustafson noted that Los Altos residents now pay less on average than some nearby cities. Specifically, the average monthly Los Altos sewer service bill in 2012 – $27.51 – is approximately $10 less than the average monthly bill paid by Milpitas residents. Sunnyvale residents paid on average a $30.84 monthly bill during 2012.

The average monthly bill in Los Altos has dropped considerably since 2009, from $37.96 to its current average of $28.96, according to Gustafson. He attributed the change in part to a 13 percent decrease in water use by residents since 2008 – a trend he expects to continue.

“We have designed and developed a strategy to make the rate increases very gradual,” Gustafson said, noting that replacing the sewer system could cost the city more than $100 million.

In terms of service quality, the report credited the city’s upgraded maintenance. Inspection and repair schedules since 2005 have resulted in an 80 percent reduction in dry weather sanitary sewer overflows, from an average of 15 in 2002 through 2004 to 2.5 overflows during the past two years. It also noted that 93 percent of the city’s system has been inspected since 2005, resulting in 5 percent rated in poor condition.

“We have sewer crews out there every day doing sewer-main flushing that allows the city’s lines to keep passing sewage,” Gustafson said.

He estimates that a five-year rate study will be “locked in” by July. He added that city officials should begin notifying residents about the results of the study in early June.

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