Further discussion to be held at Sept. 5 council meeting
Following a heated discussion over water and sewer rates at the Aug. 15 Benicia City Council meeting, where several residents took to the lectern to voice their concerns over paying higher bills for the above rates, Mayor Elizabeth Patterson responded to the issues that people had brought up at the meeting and elsewhere in an e-alert mailing sent out Friday.
In 2012, the City Council voted to approve water and sewer rate increases following a six-year hold as a result of aging infrastructures and the need to comply with water and wastewater regulations. In April of 2016, the council voted to freeze the increases but reopened them four months later with the increases slated to be adjusted each year starting with July 1, 2017 through the 2020-21 fiscal year.
Patterson sought to clarify some of the matters people had brought up regarding the new rates.
One issue that was frequently brought up was that residents felt the new water meters were not working correctly and suggested they be calibrated. Patterson said the process was being done by a third party lab with knowledge of testing meters and that the result would be provided later on with any corrections made.
Another concern was that residents felt the rates were higher than in other areas, namely Contra Costa County. Patterson refuted this notion, writing that increases in water rates were a statewide issue, often resulting in recall elections. She said this was due to other jurisdictions not having done the proper maintenance, due to Proposition 13— a 1978 statewide initiative aimed at limiting the tax rate for properties—, Propostion 218— a 1996 initiative aimed at limiting the methods that local governments can create or increase taxes or fees without the consent of taxpayers—, and the Great Recession.
“This is the penny wise, pound foolish approach that results in pipes, valves, tanks, meters at end of life and failing and inaccurate meters,” Patterson wrote. “When these things break it takes about ten times more money to fix. Penny wise, pound foolish is not good public policy.”
She also provided a chart of how Benicia’s rates compared to outside agencies, ranging from Fairfield to Contra Costa, and noted that the city’s proposed rates were in the mean range of other agencies.
Another concern residents expressed was that they were being billed at new rates despite their billing cycle including older rates. In a previous message, City Manager Lorie Tinfow said in a previous message that the city had made a mistake in the billing process and staff were working to correct it. Patterson wrote that final action is still being determined.
Residents also opined that the city’s maintenance and repair goals were too high and that the work scheduled for funding was not realistic. Patterson noted that staff were on schedule at the time and that she had requested a trend analysis for both water and sewer revenues.
“I asked for a trend analysis of revenues for both water and sewer,” she wrote. “If revenues are higher than project revenue needs, we should adjust the rates lower. For instance, if the new meters are accurate and the higher use of water combined with new accurate meters means more revenue than projected, then rates could be adjusted.”
Patterson said the analysis could take longer than a month.
Residents also felt that the city was doing too much in a short amount of time. Patterson posted a chart highlighting the projected balances without rate increases versus the recommended minimum reserve balances over the next four years.
“Acting later or slower and with less maintenance would cost more money over time,” she wrote.
Patterson also noted that while some residents suggested the city try an alternative to the rate increases, she did not receive any specific suggestions.
One area in which Patterson felt the city could have done a better job was in providing public notice.
“I am frustrated that we didn’t take advantage of our resources last year to engage people more,” she wrote. “While the staff effort was professional, we needed to do a better job. Our new city manager is committed to doing just this and we are beginning to see the new and improved public information and engagement.”
Finally, Patterson suggested that the higher rates were a result of higher temperatures in May and June leading to higher water use.
“People perceive that they should apply more water to the yard and so they actually overwater during higher temperatures,” she wrote. “Because of the great water conservation by many people in Benicia, it is frustrating to many that their water bills are higher. Using more water is at the root of the problem, coupled with more accurate meters.”
The e-alert was posted to the Facebook group “Benicia Happenings,” where several commenters were not assuaged by the information, with some even saying that they were still paying more despite using less water.
In a recent City of Benicia This Week newsletter, City Manager Lorie Tinfow said a further discussion on the water rates would be held at the Sept. 5 council meeting to discuss why the meters were replaced and how the new meters are calibrated, among other items.