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Series of city water, sewer rate hikes OK'd
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A handful of residents spoke at Monday's Ceres City Council to protest a series of adjustments to water and sewer rates. However, the 24 written protests collected by the city clerk were a far cry from the 6,359 needed to halt the increases during the Prop. 218 protest hearing.

The council was unanimous in adjusting rates, intended to generate revenue for capital improvements to the aging system.

Currently Ceres households pay $43.99 per month for sewer service. The rate will jump to $44.99 on July 1, $49.33 during the 2014-15 fiscal year, $52.96 for 2015-16, $56.30 for 2016-17 and $59.03 per month for 2017-18 year.

Water rates in Ceres also will increase in July. The city is raising the volumetric charge from 72 cents per 1,000 gallons to $1 -- and $2 per thousand gallons by 2017-18.

Currently the average Ceres household pays $31.28 per month for water service. That figure is based on a current $20.42 per month service charge and $10.86 per month in volumetric charges based on use of the average use of 15,820 gallons per month. Under the rate adjustment, the average Ceres household will pay $35.57 per month in July, $39.93 in 2014-15, $44.18 in 2015-16, $47.24 in 2016-17 and $50.43 in 2017-18.

Commercial rates receiving water through a two-inch line would go from an average of $93.18 to $139.36 for the 2017-18 year. The new charges would affect schools with larger lines and could mean Ceres Unified School District pays $20,000 extra per year for water.

City Engineer Toby Wells said the chief driver of the rate adjustments is the city's need to set aside more funds for $8.6 million in much needed capital projects. The city's goal, said Wells, is to keep rates as low as possible while doing the improvements. He also noted that delaying the improvements would only increase the costs later.

"These are significant improvements in the system that are needed," said Wells.

John Farnkopf of HF&H Consultants said the city has only been setting aside $900,000 annually for capital projects but needs to save $2.3 million annually by 2017-18 fiscal year.

Needed capital improvement projects include $1.2 million for a new north side well, $4.9 million Central Avenue main, and $400,000 to design River Bluff Park tank and pump station.

Resident Deanna Purdue criticized the plan, asking why the city allows new homes to be constructed "when we don't have enough adequate water?" Mayor Chris Vierra reminded her that the rate adjustments are about ensuring the existing city systems serves well those who are already here. Purdue then suggested the city needs to give breaks to residents who have been here longest, something that is not currently permitted by state law.

Scott Kane, owner of Las Casitas Mobilehome Park, said the rates impact his residents, many who are seniors or low-income families. "They can least afford it," said Kane. He criticized the city for charging commercial water rates although park residents typically use 40 percent less water than a single family residence. Kane also disagrees with the city basing sewer rates on water use and prefers the city meter his sewer output.

Jerry Davis, who owns a Central Avenue duplex in Ceres, said the increases hurt his tenants who have lived through a five-year recession. Davis said his December 2007 bill for sewer, water and garbage was $96.45, but is now running $170 to $185. The latest adjustments, he said, will equate to a bill of $230 to $240 in five years.

"You're hurting the hard working and poorest of the poor," Davis told the council.

He, too, wondered why duplexes are charged a commercial rate when the use is residential.

At least two residents applauded the city for looking to improve the Ceres systems. Ivan Ernest thanked the city for "pulling this plan together... to look at long planning that is just going to be controversial." He said the council "did not take the easy way out." Jim Bergamaschi, who has lived in Kinser Road for over 60 years, said he is just happy to be hooked up to city water and sewer.

Much discussion centered on the city's plan to set a higher volumetric rate for residents who use 50,000 gallons or more of water per month as an incentive to get them to reduce use. The second tier rate was proposed to be $1.45 per 1,000 gallons as opposed to the upcoming $1 per 1,000 used by the typical household. That second tier rate is set to be $2.90 per thousand by 2017-18.

David Yonan, however, said the second tier doesn't take into account large lot owners such as himself. He argued that the $1.45 per 1,000 gallon rate was not fair since he has a 28,000 square foot lot which is four to five times larger than the city average.

"I don't use five times the water," said Yonan. "So in my mind a larger lot person is not using four or five times the amount of water of the average so I'm your best water user, not your worst water user."

During June, July and August Yonan's use went over 50,000 gallons.

Resident Albert Avila disagreed with Yonan, saying that the large lot owner would not be unfairly treated. "If you're using the water, you should pay for it," said Avila. "You're costing the city more money."

Yonan then asked Wells if it costs the city 45 percent more for supplying water for users of over 50,000 gallons per month. Wells replied "probably more than that."

Councilman Mike Kline said he is concerned about small lot users - such as in Morrow Village -- using in excess of 50,000 gallons per month, probably from leaky pipes. But he was the first to suggest raising the second tier level to 75,000 gallons per month.

Vice Mayor Ken Lane agreed, saying the additional $19,000 to be generated in the second tier pricing would not be great.

Wells estimated that 2,700 accounts have hit in excess of 50,000 gallons but enacting a trigger of 75,000 gallons will lower that to 455.

The council voted 5-0 for the increases.

"It's not an easy decision," said the mayor. "It affects a lot of our citizens and I have to keep going back to the core elements .... the water and sewer systems that we have are probably the most valuable resource that we have. I am not willing to run a billion dollar system into the ground." He suggested that perhaps the reason past administrations failed to raise rates for 12 years prior to 2008 was "because it was the easy way out."

Sewer rates will actually decrease in areas of north Ceres area where residents now pay $54.84 per month. The rates drop to $46.43 and rise to $54.69 by the end of the 2017-18 fiscal year. The decrease is a result of the city of Modesto, which supplies service to that area, offering service at lower rate than original projected.