Council talks water rate hike

CITY HALL — The City Council this week set the stage for approving a controversial proposed 3.8%-water rate increase despite pleas from residents who said they already struggle to pay their utility bills.

More than 30 residents spoke Tuesday at a public hearing on the proposed rate hike, which Glendale Water & Power officials say is needed to help meet the rising cost of imported water and less revenue brought on by mandatory conservation rules.

"The reality is we have to deal with the financial shortfall issue," said Glendale Water & Power Commissioner Zanku Armenian.

For the average residential customer, increase would translate into an additional $4.66 on each bill, officials said.

Even if the higher rate is approved, officials have said critical capital projects, including maintenance of some of the city's oldest pipes, will continue to be postponed.

But several dozen residents argued that the rate increase would place an undue burden on ratepayers, especially low-income residents and seniors on fixed incomes.

The utility granted 24,547 payment extensions last fiscal year — a 5% increase compared with the same period the year before, and a 21% increase compared to 2007.

"It would be difficult to pick a worse time to impose another rate increase on Glendale ratepayers," said resident Bob Getz.

On Tuesday, Mayor Ara Najarian, Councilman Dave Weaver and Councilwoman Laura Friedman indicated they would likely support the increase when it comes to a vote in two weeks because they said they see no other alternative.

"My fiscal responsibility, I believe, is to make sure there are adequate resources to maintain the quality of life we are accustomed to," Weaver said.

Friedman also said the rate increase was more about the rapidly rising cost of imported water.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which supplies the majority of the city's water, will institute a 15% rate increase of its own over the next two years on top of a 20% increase approved last year.

And if the city hadn't adhered to mandatory conservation measures, the utility could have been hit with even higher penalties, she said.

"Increasingly expensive and scarcer water is the new normal," Friedman said.

She also advocated for a program to help low-income residents and seniors who may struggle to pay their bills.

Many residents questioned the financial prudence of the city's multimillion-dollar Smart Grid project, while others seized on a the annual transfer of millions in water revenues to the General Fund, which pays for general services such as police and libraries.

The City Attorney's Office is currently evaluating whether the transfer, written into the Charter by voters more than 60 years ago, was made invalid by a 2006 California Supreme Court ruling.

"I think the elephant in the room is the transfers to the General Fund," said Christopher Welch, president of the Adams Hill Neighborhood Assn.

City officials have long defended the transfers, which they say make up for Glendale's below-average proportion of property tax revenues, frozen decades ago by Proposition 13.

Councilman John Drayman, who with Frank Quintero said he was opposed to the rate hike, also questioned the transfer at a time of financial instability.

"We all talk about the fact the Charter says, 'We shall transfer,'" he said. "It also provides exception when the economic health of the utility is in jeopardy."

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