Los Angeles Times

South Laguna water rates to rise

Certain water and sewer rates will rise next year for 2,000 South Laguna customers, but not as much as the South Coast Water District proposed.

The board of directors approved the rate hikes during a special meeting Monday at district headquarters, but not without opposition from two residents and one board member.

"We have to remember our obligation as a public agency, owned by the public, to keep [rates] down," board vice president Bob Moore said.

The board voted 3 to 1 for the water and sewer rate increases, with president Wayne Rayfield and directors Richard Runge and Rick Erkeneff (who phoned in from Alaska) approving the rate increases. Moore dissented.

Director Dick Dietmeier was ill, district spokeswoman Linda Homscheid said.

"We have to reanalyze the budget, see who is doing what," Moore said. "I'm opposed to a 1-inch meter being so much more to use than a three-quarters-inch meter."

Meter size corresponds with the size of the water pipe used.

The 2013-14 annual water service charge will remain $284.62 for a three-quarter-inch meter and $512.31 for a one-inch meter, according to a district staff report. The rate will jump to $294.20 for the 2014-15 fiscal year.

The district used $100,000 from reserves to lessen the amount of the annual water service charge increase.

Beginning Thursday, ratepayers in single-family homes will be charged 15 cents more per unit of water (748 gallons) they use — from $2.01 per unit to $2.16 per unit. The increase applies to the first five units, and the rate will rise to $2.25 per unit in 2014-15, the staff report said.

For customers who use six to 13 units, the per unit cost will increase 22 cents to $4.07 in 2013-14.

The rates reflect the cost to purchase water from the Municipal Water District of Orange County (a wholesale supplier), South Coast District General Manager Betty Burnett said.

South Coast imports 75% of its water from Northern California and the Colorado River, and those costs are rising faster than the general inflation rate, according to a notice mailed to residents.

Customers who use six units or more are helping the district treat, store and deliver water, Homscheid said.

The monthly sewer usage charge will jump to $1.07 per unit of water from 97 cents. The new figure is less than what staff proposed at a public meeting Thursday ($1.18 per unit), when the board deadlocked 2 to 2, leading to Monday's special meeting.

The district used $250,000 from its reserves to help lessen the amount of the sewer usage increase, Homscheid said.

The rate will increase to $1.20 in 2014-15, she said.

In approving the measure, the board agreed to set rates for the next two years, instead of three years, as originally proposed.

Customers will see the new water and sewer usage charges reflected in their monthly bills starting in September, according to Homscheid.

South Laguna resident Penny Elia suggested using recycled water instead of raising rates, and recommended ways of reducing the district's budget.

"When the average employee income is $139,000, I would say that is not lean and mean," Elia said. "If tap water is so good, stop serving water in individual bottles at events. I'm disturbed with the rate increase. It seems like we're not making any progress."

Burnett countered with how much it costs to deliver water (less than a penny per gallon) compared to dirt.

"It costs $2 per ton to deliver [water]," Burnett said. "To deliver clean topsoil, it costs $40 per ton. We are setting rates as fair as possible, considering the work we have to do."

The annual residential sewer service charge will drop $34.93 to $418.44 in 2013-14, but increase to $446.46 the following year, according to the staff report.

Moore compared salaries of district staff in 2001 to employees' current salaries.

"In 2001 we had 65 employees on a payroll of $3 million and 49,000," he said. "It's still the same district, still the same size."

Runge pointed out the district is bigger.

"I said after consolidation," Moore told Runge.

In 1999, the Dana Point Sanitary District and Capistrano Beach Water District consolidated into the South Coast Water District, according to the South Coast website.

South Coast provides water and sewer service to 8.3 square miles of south Orange County that include South Laguna (Three Arch Bay north to Nyes Place), northern San Clemente, northern San Juan Capistrano and most of Dana Point.

The district serves 40,000 full-time residents, which compose 80% of total customers, 1,000 businesses and more than two million visitors a year with potable water, recycled water for irrigation, and sanitary sewer service.

The district generates $600,000 in lease revenue each year from its San Juan Creek property, a 30-acre parcel in Dana Point that has a groundwater recovery facility.

But the rate increase is separate from any money received from the property, Moore said.

"Added income has nothing to do with operational cost," Moore said. "I'd like to see numbers [of the operating budget]."

Average total compensation (salary, plus benefits) for each of the district's 77 employees is $117,775 for 2013-14, Homscheid said.

The average employee salary is $82,337 per year, she said.

Moore said he didn't have enough time to review the revised rate structure he received Friday before Monday's meeting.

Elia had the same concern with an email she received on Saturday from the district that had no subject line.

"If the district wants to communicate with customers, a subject line would be helpful," Elia said.

Runge proposed approving the rate hike as it was brought forth Monday.

"We haven't had any spills the last two years, and the reason is rate payers pay for a system in great shape," Runge said. "If they don't get repaired, they will break. I don't like to see us use reserves if there is an earthquake or major disaster."

The district will invest up to $50 million to reduce its reliance on imported water in the next 10 years, according to the notice mailed to residents.

"We will continue to develop reliable, local water supplies, such as groundwater and recycled water — as well as participate in ocean desalination projects," the release said.

The district is about to embark on a five-year project to shore up a 2-mile-long, 6-foot-wide underground tunnel that houses a sewer line, which will be replaced. The project is estimated to cost $90 million, Homscheid said.

For more information, visit the South Coast website at http://www.scwd.org.

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