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City: no choice on water meters
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Two residents of Ceres let the City Council know Monday that they don't approve of the city's plan to install water meters at every residence in Ceres.

The discussion broke forth as the council considered hiring a Bay area consulting firm for $32,500 to help the city conduct a public relations effort to inform the public about aspects of metering during the transition from the current flat rate. The council went on to approve the contract as well as spending $22,000 in printed materials.

Councilmembers listened but said they have no choice but to comply with a state law requiring all cities to begin providing water on a metered basis.

The city expects to spend $3.2 million to retrofit all Ceres homes with meters - a cost that was factored into a series of rate increases. The city raised water and sewer rates in February to help pay for improvements to the aging systems. The rate adjustment is also for rising production costs, the cost of installing water meters, and treating water to quality standards. The rate increases also make up for a $2 million annual deficit because the city wasn't charging enough to cover expenses. The rates jumped from $15.30 per month per single-family home to $22.30. The rates next jump to $26.85, $28.20 by 2010 and $31.40 by 2012-13.

Ceres resident Ed Persike asked that the council re-examine its decision to enact a water metering program and demand that the state pay for meters since state lawmakers are requiring the action.

"To add additional costs to the citizens I think is a fool hearty thing to do," said Persike, who predicts monthly water rates of $80 to $100 once metering commences. "This is a difficult situation. This community is under financial stress. The people who live here are under tremendous duress and I think it's unfair to lay additional burdens when you don't necessary have to."

He condemned the spending of $32,500 on a consultant to dispense information as "money that we don't have."

Persike said to "send the bill back to the feds, back to the state and say enough is enough, if you want it, pay for it."

His sentiments were echoed by Len Shepherd who said the council should "tell the state to go take a hike." Shepherd said he remembered skyrocketing rate rates in San Mateo County before coming to Ceres. He said the city he lived in found out that conservation reduced revenue and the city increased base line rates to make up for the deficit.

Mayor Anthony Cannella followed up to the comments by asking city staff what might happen if the city thumbed its nose at the state mandate and not begin reading meters by next year. Public Works Director Phil Scott said the city could lose over $725,000 in state grants, be banned from seeking future bids and be exposed to state fines. City Manager Brad Kilger said the state could also step in and direct growth in a city if not complying with state laws.

State lawmakers imposed mandatory metering in an effort to curb urban water use. Some studies indicate that people conserve water by 20 percent when having to pay for it on a metered basis versus a flat rate.

Scott said that curbing water use will help the city. "We are struggling to provide enough adequate water and adequate pressures and this water meter project would provide us with approximately 20 percent water savings conservation," he said. By delaying metering for 40 percent of the population in houses built since 1992 would not result in as much water savings, Scott said.

Currently the city gets by meeting water demand with its sole source of water - groundwater. In the near future Ceres hopes to participate in a TID plant and deliver system that will pipe water from the Tuolumne River, clean it and send it to area homes in Ceres, Hughson, Modesto and Turlock.

The state has devised a two-tiered strategy to meter all California homes where municipal water is used. It divides all houses into two categories: those built before 1992 and those built after. By the end of 2010, the city must install water meters on all homes built after 1992. And by January 2025, the state requires all cities to have meters installed on homes built prior to 1992. The city, however, plans to install meters on all homes by next year. Scott said it's the most fair and equitable way to treat residents.

Cannella said the city will not be making a profit under the metering plan.

Councilman Guillermo Ochoa said the council had to make "very tough decisions" about raising rates since past city officials put off rate increases that resulted in deficit operations.