By Peggy Kelly
Santa Paula Times
Today is the day you’ll probably want to start turning off the faucet, counting flushes and timing showers as an almost double rate increase on the controversial sewer processing surcharge kicks in.
The increase from 58 cents per 100 cubic feet of water-748 gallons-to $1.12 per 100 cubic feet had been delayed for a year with two six-month extensions.
Without fanfare of announcement the new rate became effective November 1 and will be reflected on the customers’ next bill.
Although there was no public notice issued that rates were about to almost double or comment from the City Council City, Manager Jaime Fontes did touch upon one aspect of the subject at the October 21 meeting.
Fontes said, “We continue to work on the rate study to carry out the winter rates and the recommendations,” garnered from the two public meetings held by the Ad Hoc Committee of Vice Mayor Rick Cook and Councilman Bob Gonzales.
Fontes said the winter rate study has been launched involving consultant Greg Clumpner of NBS and Interim Public Works Director Brian Yanez and “We hope good things come from it.... “
Cook and Gonzales volunteered for the committee-suggested by Gonzales and formed in October 2012-that held two public meetings and stated at past sessions they would be meeting privately with professionals in the industry.
Before it even started the surcharge proved to be controversial as customers learned it included water utilized for landscaping and other uses that never go near the city’s water recycling plant for treatment. Citizens started approaching the council in 2010 on several utility issues, including the monthly $77.21 sewer fee-about 20 percent is directed to a city infrastructure account-and finally under pressure the council said a study would be launched, but it never was.
Those attending the May 13 ad hoc committee session were told the 2008 adopted surcharge had indeed been based on a proposed study of water usage during winter months.
Such a study would have established a household usage baseline for water actually processed at the sewer plant. The study was to follow other cities that created a baseline calculated on household usage during the three wettest months of the year, a practice known as “winterizing” that would only measure interior water uses. At that time it was calculated that, using the model, most Santa Paulans would only pay an extra $4 to $5 a month on their base sewer bill.
That study was never launched, and critics complained customers were paying for a service-sewage processing-for water that did not go to the wastewater plant.
The city used the Design/Build/Operate/Finance process to build the new facility that a then narrow council majority vote in April 2008 opted to use private financing rather than municipal bonds.
Although the total cost of the plant was about $70 million, the contract with Santa Paula Water LLC-then a partnership between majority partner Alinda Capital Partners and plant building/operator PERC-called for a fifth year buyout price of $85 million. The plant was officially online mid-2010.
The city has been exploring and the council discussing purchasing the wastewater treatment plant using lower rate bonds since December 2011.
At past meetings Cook has been vocal about wastewater treatment plant costs, noting the city is paying a more than 8 percent interest rate as well as an almost $1.2 million annual bill he likened to an ill-defined loan guarantee.
Under the present arrangement with Santa Paula Water LLC, the 30-year buyout cost of the wastewater plant is approximately $227 million.