Sewer rate sticker shock
When the latest property tax bills came in the mail this fall, some Valley residents suffered sticker shock. After changes to the way the sewer rate is calculated, some saw their fees for sewage service increase – a few as much as doubled.
Under the new scheme, the rate is based on estimated usage. There is not a wholly reliable way to measure actual waste, so the Sonoma County Water Agency – which manages the Sonoma Valley County Sanitation District – got winter (January and February) water usage figures from the Valley of the Moon Water District (which supplies the actual water) and based the household rate on those. People knew, or should have known, the changes were coming and how they’d be calculated more than a year in advance, but the severity of the increases has still taken some by surprise.
“There’s no perfect way to (estimate sewer usage), but this is the way several other towns around Sonoma County do it,” said Spencer Bader, of the Sonoma County Water Agency. The other towns on similar plans that use winter water usage to set sewer fees include Rohnert Park, Healdsburg, Santa Rosa and Petaluma.
Sonoma resident Scott Pace voiced his displeasure with the new system at a recent City Council meeting. “From what I can tell,” Pace told the Index-Tribune, “It was an ill-conceived rate plan. It’s unfair to dump that kind of increase on the taxpayers. We’re getting hit from every direction.” Pace pays taxes on an 1,800-square-foot house with two people living in it, and his rate went up 46 percent. He’s adamant that his household isn’t a “water-waster” and that he’s taken conservation measures, such as installing water restrictors on every faucet in the house including the showerheads. In a casual survey of his neighbors, Pace says he hasn’t found anyone with less than a 30 percent increase.
One of those neighbors, Marilyn Kelly, who lives by herself, reported that her rate increased 64.6 percent, though is checking if she might be eligible for a readjustment of the fee she paid because she had a water leak last winter.
“I’d like the City Council, representing the taxpayers of Sonoma, to request that the water agency revisit their new rate plan,” said Pace. “Either there needs to be a major adjustment in how they are doing their figures, so it’s a reasonable increase for the tax payers, or they just need to go back to the old rate plan.”
The fee used to be a flat rate based on the estimated usage of an Equivalent Standard Dwelling (ESD) and was the same for everyone with a single family house, regardless of whether it was an 800-square-foot house with one person living in it or a large dwelling inhabited by a family of six. Some people felt this was unfair.
After public hearings, the board of directors of the Sonoma County Sanitation District – Mayor Joanne Sanders, 1st District Supervisor Valerie Brown and County Board of Supervisors Chair Shirlee Zane – approved the new fee structure.
“For the last four or five years people have come to the board, talking about how inappropriate the rates were,” Brown said. “When we started to look at the options, this is the one that seemed the fairest. But we recognized that if some people, if they didn’t conserve and if they didn’t recognize what they needed to do to change their behavior, they were probably going to end up paying more.”
The water agency instituted the new rate based on estimated usage, which taxpayers saw reflected in this year’s tax bill. The rate plan was based on water usage records provided to the Sonoma Valley Water Agency by the VOM Water District, which calculated that, based on actual usage, the average household in the district uses 4,420 gallons a month. The figure was based on winter usage, so it is not supposed to include outside and irrigation usage, but reflect as accurately as possible what actually goes down the drain. The average rainfall for January is just a little more than 6 inches, although winter 2012 was drier than usual with just under 5 inches of rainfall.
According to Bader, in November 2011, the Sonoma Valley Water Agency took out ads in the Index-Tribune and Press Democrat, and sent out individualized notices to people that said, “if you use your water the same way you did in 2011, this is what your sewer fee bill would be.”
“Anybody who continues to water their yards and gardens in the winter is just wasting money,” Bader said.
Sanders saw her own fee increase by 46 percent. “That’s a lot,” she said. “I never anticipated that my sewer bill was going to go up by $30 a month.” Sanders, despite the fact that she sat on the board that approved the new plan, feels the change has been far too steep for many and that it should have been smoothed out over time so there wouldn’t be such drastic increases. “It certainly has a negative impact on families. You know, we have to take showers.”
Pace and Sanders are not alone in their alarm at how high their increases were. Others have been calling Bader to voice their displeasure. “Most of the people that we have heard from,” Bader said, “the amount of water that they were using is significantly higher than the average 4,420 gallons per month.”
The new rate structure only applies to residential units that have individual water meters, so hotels and apartments without individual meters, for example, were not included. Houses on wells and other residences not included in the new rate plan were charged a flat rate of $772, a 5.5 percent increase over the previous year.
The households under the new plan were each charged a base rate of $540.40 just for having a hookup (70 percent of the total average fee of $772, based on the premise that 70 percent of the Sanitation Department’s costs are fixed). The variable portion of the fee above that base rate is the part based on winter water use, $4.37 per 1,000 gallons a month. Under this formula, the statistically average household using 4,420 gallons of water a month, would pay $231.78 for the variable portion of its fee, which when added to $540.40 base rate comes to $772.18. Those using more or less water could pay substantially more or less. There are households in the Valley that use as much as 20,000 gallons of water a month (their variable portion would come to $1,048.80 and a total of $1,589.20).
“Not surprisingly, most of the phone calls that we’ve had complaining about this are at the upper end,” Bader said. “Nobody has called complaining that we charged them too little.” Bader has counted 3,111 households in the district, and 1,007 in the city, that had increases– out of a total of 8,752 district-wide. The increases paid ranged anywhere from $777, just a few dollars over the average, to $1,601.80, the highest fee paid.
The smallest fee paid was just a few dollars more than the $540.40 base. Bader doesn’t yet have the average of fee changes and decreases, nor has he yet calculated the number of homes that stayed near the average and those where fees went down.
“We don’t get any more money because of this. That $4.27 per 1,000 gallons was a calculated number that made sure that we would be revenue neutral in all of this,” said Bader.
There have been a small number of households who have called the Sonoma Valley Water Agency with valid reasons for adjustments, such as having a major water leak during the period on which their usage was based or some other reason why the number was not consistent with their usage. In such cases, the Water Agency has been responsive and made adjustments to fees.
Bader said that the week before Thanksgiving, he’d received 10 calls; four of them resulted in adjustments.
Supervisor Brown stressed that there have been far fewer complaints about the rate changes so far than there were about the unfairness of the old rates, and while the rates will be reviewed every year, she doesn’t foresee significant changes.