Laguna Beach to increase sewer user charge by 5% for one year

City Council was previously set to decide on possible financing options for a wastewater system capital improvement program, but the item was continued to Tuesday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Sewer user charges are going up, following direction by the Laguna Beach City Council on Tuesday.

Council members unanimously moved to approve a one-year, 5% sewer user charge increase to pay for a wastewater system capital improvement program.

The City Council initially approved in February a one-year, 10% increase, following a 1.4-million-gallon sewage spill, but it was considering other financing options in response to the stay-at-home order by Gov. Gavin Newsom, which city staff said has caused significant impacts to both the city and to ratepayers.

The City Council considered potentially retaining the proposed 10%, decreasing the rate charge to 5% or eliminating the increase completely.

City staff said the one-year 5% increase will cause one capital improvement project to be deferred but added that the project might have been deferred regardless due to design challenges. The city may also need to borrow from its insurance fund, depending on fines incurred as a result of the spill.

Further rate increases will have to be considered after a settlement on an administrative civil liability assessment is reached with the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board on the Thanksgiving Day sewage spill and the study on possible improvements to the North Coast Interceptor is completed.

Elisa Gimenez said the idea came about after seeing stories circulate on social media about nurses and doctors with bruises from their personal protective equipment.

Discussion was continued from last week’s council meeting for city staff to have more time to verify figures included in the prepared staff report on what increases could potentially look like for commercial properties. The table in the staff report for Tuesday’s meeting broke down the potential rate increases based on volume and level of pollutant concentrations that needed to be removed from the wastewater at the treatment plant, which varies business to business.

One resident raised concerns about the increase in sewer user fees, describing the actions taken by the City Council as “kicking the can down the road.”

Councilwoman Toni Iseman, who represents the city of Laguna Beach on the South Orange County Wastewater Authority, said that she has been on the board for years and was familiar with the coastal treatment plant, describing its current state as “at the end of the road.”

“What we have there, if we were to choose to maintain it, it’s like throwing a money in an old Mercedes that really doesn’t work anymore and it functions,” Iseman said, “but there will be a better way of dealing with our sewage and I think that when that happens, this will be in fact something that we’d be eligible for state or federal funds.”

“That’s coming in our future and we’re not going to be able to charge our residents enough to do the stuff that needs to be done there,” she added.

Iseman said she felt many residents had been impacted by the stay-at-home order and suggested the 5% increase with Mayor Bob Whalen agreeing, adding that he felt commercial businesses would also be suffering along with residents.

Councilman Peter Blake said he agreed with the speaker and was willing to go to the 10% increase to take care of the sewers and ensure the city’s infrastructure was prepared for the future. Following direction by City Council, city staff will change the adopted budget to reflect the 5% rate increase.

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