South Gate Weighs Hike in Sewer Usage Fee : Utility: City Council could nearly double monthly rate to pay for repairs of crumbling system.

Use caution when flushing. It may mean trouble for your toilet--and wallet.

South Gate's sewer system is crumbling, and there isn't much money to fix it. Typically, when a sewer pipe breaks, toilets back up and the water is shut down for weeks until repairs are made.

In an effort to cover the yearly cost of repairs and balance the $1-million sewer budget--sacked by a series of sewer problems--the city could nearly double sewer charges.

That prospect disturbs some residents.

Blanca Vega, 37, lives on Tecumseh Avenue, which public works officials believe contains weak sewer pipes. She plans to protest the fee increase as unaffordable at a City Council hearing in March, but is skeptical her voice will matter.

"They are going to raise the rate whether we like it or not," she said.

The monthly sewer rate is based on the amount of water used by each household: the more times a toilet is flushed, the higher the bill.

An average household using 9,750 gallons of water is charged $1.95. City officials estimate that it will cost an additional 91 cents a month to fund the ongoing sewer maintenance and another 65 cents to balance the sewer fund. With the increase, the average household would pay $3.51 monthly.

Concerned that the fee may be too steep for many low-income residents, City Council members have been reluctant to support an increase without weighing options.

"The bottom line is that we are going to have to pay for this, but we're looking at the least costly alternatives," Mayor Albert T. Robles said.

Councilman Bill Martinez, who, along with Councilman Jerry Garcia, has been working on a sewer committee created two months ago to study the repairs, had also urged Public Works Director Jim Biery to find other sources of money. Biery said his department is examining the possibility of securing federal funding.

The City Council has scheduled a public hearing March 21 for residents' testimony on the possible rate hike, which was recommended by the city staff.

Since the 1930s, when the concrete pipe system was installed, there has been an average of one street collapse a year. But within the last eight months, six streets have collapsed. The city has 127 miles of streets, 90 miles of which have underground concrete pipes.

Officials estimate that it will cost $10 million for a 40-year project to rehabilitate 40 miles of crumbling concrete sewer pipes with plastic lining. The fee increase would raise about $565,000 per year, with about $250,000 to be used to line one mile of pipe a year.

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