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Plan to Audit Bureau Holds Water

Deciphering sewer charges levied by the Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation is not that difficult--if you happen to have a PhD in fluid dynamics. For the rest of us, though, the calculus used to figure bills is practically impenetrable, leading to confusion and anger over rates that appear to bear little resemblance to actual use. Last year’s complete overhaul of the rate structure helped ease complaints over unfair billing, but still has not erased resentment over fees many residents consider excessive.

That’s why an independent audit ordered last week by the City Council should proceed quickly. Many people--including a few council members--don’t trust the Bureau of Sanitation to provide an unbiased and understandable review of the rate structure. Overall, the new rates are equitable and give residents in the San Fernando Valley special dispensation for lots that often are larger than the citywide average. By calculating rates based on winter water usage, the structure attempts to charge users only for water that actually makes its way into the sewer rather than for water for landscaping or to fill a pool.

Even so, a small, vocal minority of residents continues to complain--often over charges no more than a few dollars per month. That they are unhappy is clear. How to address their complaints without undoing decades of work to upgrade the sewer system is not so clear. No, it’s not fair that users get charged for water that never enters the system. But no cost-effective way exists to monitor every single house for a gallon-by-gallon accounting of sewer use. Customers can, however, install their own meters at their own expense.

The use of winter rates has its critics. Many people don’t adjust their sprinklers during the winter, allowing them to run at summer levels even during rainy weather. They have no one to blame but themselves for higher rates. But no one likes to take the blame when there is a convenient city bureaucracy.

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Bureau of Sanitation engineers are doing the best they can. An audit should reveal whether that’s good enough, and should identify areas for change. To be sure, improvements to the city’s sewer system have resulted in the cleanest water in Santa Monica Bay since the earliest years of this century. Those improvements, however, don’t come cheap. Neither will the $1 billion in maintenance and upgrades expected over the next decade just to keep the 80-year-old system running safely. Yet Los Angeles residents still pay about one-third of what residents in San Francisco pay for sewer service. The system is not perfect. No one needs an audit for that. But if it can reveal inefficiencies and suggest solutions, then it will not just be money down the drain.


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