SANTA PAULA : Residents Protest Large Increases in Their Water Bills

Santa Paula resident Pat Preston said she was shocked when she received an $80 water bill this month, a 190% increase in her service charge that she called exorbitant.

Preston is not alone.

Service charge increases for Santa Paula Water Works Ltd.'s 6,700 customers, which range from 16% to 411% according to meter size, went into effect April 10 but did not show up on bills until this month.

The privately owned water company has received nearly 20 calls in the past two weeks from residents expressing concern about the surge in fees, General Manager Frank Brommenschenkel said.

In addition to the higher service charge, the company's average customer can also expect to see a flat 24% increase for every 100 cubic feet of water used, Brommenschenkel said.

The increases came after the state Public Utilities Commission approved a 36.7% overall rate hike earlier this year. The water company had requested a 50% increase to cover escalating operation costs.

Public meetings last year on the increases were sparsely attended.

PUC policy requires rate increases to be spread among customers so that those with the largest meters pay more for the right to use the most water, Brommenschenkel said.

Preston said she plans to appeal the hike to the PUC and encouraged others to join her.

Preston or anyone else who can collect 25 signatures from people with the same size meter must prove to the commission that it made an error by setting an unreasonable rate, said Kyle Devine, a commission spokeswoman.

Brommenschenkel said the water company will replace meters with smaller ones for free at the user's request.

Preston said she is planning to downscale her 1 1/2-inch meter to one inch, which would bring her service charge down significantly.

"I don't care how long it takes for the washing machine to fill up," she said.

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