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July 25, 2017
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Rohnert Park water rates to rise with little to no resistance

By: Katherine Minkiewicz
July 14, 2017
Ordinance for increasing water rates for city passes

An ordinance that would increase Rohnert Park’s water rate by about two dollars passed 5 to 1 at this week’s city council meeting, where a public hearing was held to consider comments and input from citizens on the increase, which did not hear any public complaints or concerns regarding the increase due to go into effect on water bills after October 1, 2017. 

The need to increase the water rate from $39.21, the current rate, to $41.71 for those in the community, is due in part to several reasons; including the need for water main pipe improvements, the need for more funds for the water utilities’ Capital Improvement Plan and for funds “to address drought related revenue shortfalls,” according to an action item document provided by the city council agenda report.

Director of Public Works and Community Services, John McArthur, said the rate increase is vital for making much needed water utility improvements.

“We really need something that generates revenue. Basically, we’re putting a flat rate charge on water customer’s bills to fund projects to maintain pipes, wells and tanks. A lot of cities are designed for underground infrastructure and this is 50-years-old,” McArthur said.

The action item and the Water Study Rate Report echo McArthur’s thoughts, stating in the report, “The current water rates do not support the needs of the utility’s capital program.”

One of the aspects of the capital improvement plan in need of funding, includes addressing the wear and tear of the mentioned water pipes and utility maintenance. 

The extent of the wear and tear is described in detail  in the same Water Rate Report, “The City’s water system is aging and is now over 50-years-old. Due to the age of the of the system, the number of system failures has increased. This includes water main pipe and service pipe failures… If water system capital needs continue to be deferred, the reliability and ability of the utility to provide safe drinking water could be jeopardized.”

According to the report, water utility staff determined that they would need an average of $2.0 million per year for capital preservation and updates in order to fix the archaic pipes and other maintenance issues that may arise and with the current water rates, “they do not adequately support the needs of the utility’s capital program,” the action item agenda says.

In other words, funds gained from the current price of water rates in RP, are not enough to keep up with the needs for improvement and rehabilitation.

Only around six people attending the public hearing on the matter, and didn’t seem to concerned about the proposed ordinance.

However, City Clerk JoAnne Buergler, did receive 11 written protests, however, this did not fulfill the required, parcel — number of people required to put a hold on the ordinance, Buergler stated during the public hearing. 

While Councilwoman Gina Belforte said she had received several emails from concerned citizens regarding the increase, she did say this regarding concerns expressed to her, “It is never fun to raise rates, especially for folks with low income, but preserving our infrastructure is important and I do support this increase.”The increase has a two pronged component that comprises of a “water system capital preservation charge” and a “provision to implement a temporary water shortage surcharge,” according to action item documents.

The preservation charge would be phased into the water rate charges in a six-year period in addition to current rates and services charges according to the same document.

The other component of the passed rate escalation includes a “provision to implement a temporary water shortage surcharge,” which would be applied if City Council were to declare a water shortage emergency,” the agenda item says.  

McArthur explained the need of these additional charges, saying, “There were a couple major main pipe breaks… we had it two time in one one month period. We just put a patch on it and bain-aided it together. This (the flat rate $2.50 increment) would give us the ability to replace the pipe and do it the right way… and we need a lot of money to maintain it.”

Photos of the main pipe breakage shown during the presentation at the meeting, showed a large corroded metal pipe burst, with water spewing out, causing the need for the emergency patch work which took place on Commerce Boulevard near the expressway.

The Rohnert Park Water Rate Report, which was compiled by the Reed Group and presented at a May city council meeting, corroborated McArthur’s point on the need for additional funds, stipulating,“that it is estimated that only $300,000 will be available from water rates and other operating revenues to support the capital improvement plan,” and that “the current water rates are insufficient to support a viable long-term strategy to preserve and rehabilitate the water system.”   

According to McArthur, the need for more funds for capital planning arose after a revenue loss from water rates fell after the city and residents cut back on water usage by 10 percent during the four-year drought, causing projects such as pipe updates to be delayed due to lack of incoming funds.

Despite the fact that the funds are needed for a legitimate cause that will help promote clean and drinkable water with the long-term maintenance of pipes and utility, Councilmember Belforte wondered if the city could instead use water from the wells to save residents from having to spend more.

She asked, “What happens if we don’t use this and use well water to cut the cost?”

Robert Reed, of the Reed Group, the water management firm that conducted the water rate report, said it could be a temporary fix. 

Yet, Reed also reiterated the point of the needed updates, saying, “there is a need to replace the pipes, regardless of where the water is flowing from.”

Even with the slight increase, and the two rate component, according to comparison statistics in the report, the average water bill/rate for Rohnert Park residential customers will still be lower than most cities in Sonoma County, at around $41.71 or 77 cents per gallon, compared to the whopping cost of Sebastopol’s average water bill of $70.32 and Healdsburg cost of $58.61.

With the increase, RP’s new average water bill will still be about three times lower than Sebastopol’s, according to a data graph in the report. 

“It’s not increasing the water rates like we have in the past, we’re not charging more for the rate of consumption, it is a flat rate that would be rolled out over the year, start in October and then in June of 2018. It’s not drastic, it is a small increase,” McArthur said.

Assistant City Manager, Don Schwartz’s comments regarding the passing of the ordinance were positive. “The cost after the rate increase will still remain among the lowest in the county,” Schwartz said.

When asked what he would say to citizens who may still remain concerned, McArthur said, “We hope no major impact will be felt in people’s pocketbooks and it is only a small increase. People want clean and safe water and that comes with a price. So I would encourage citizens to conserve it (water) and treat it like a special commodity.”

Mayor Mackenzie said of the passed ordinance at the conclusion of the council’s discussion, “Infrastructure must be maintained and I am in favor of moving forward.”