After five straight years of water rate increases from 2012 to 2016, residents of Paso Robles are bracing for another five more.
On March 15, the Paso Robles City Council unanimously voted to pass an ordinance that mandates more years of water rate hikes beginning next year. In 2017, rates will rise by 43 cents to $4.83 per hundred cubic feet (HCF) and a fixed monthly charge of $5 will be added to bills. By 2021, the rates will increase to $6.56 per HCF and the monthly fixed charge will double to $10.
The ordinance is designed to cover the increasing water expenses faced by the city as Paso Robles’ water supply transitions away from the struggling Paso Robles Groundwater Basin to water in Lake Nacimiento. The city has to pay off debt from building a water treatment plant, and the rate increases cover plans to repair some deteriorating infrastructure such as century-old tanks and pipes.
“We have a number of water lines in the community that are in excess of 100-years-old,” said Director of Public Works Dick McKinley. “Customers need us to replace those pipes, pumps, and valves, or risk having their water supply in their homes suddenly halt.”
McKinley explained that if Paso Robles continues to operate on its current water rates, by 2021, the city will face a $18 million deficit.
“For 2015-2016, we expect there will be about $13 million of [water] expenses and about $10 million in revenue,” he said. “Anyone in business knows that this is not a sustainable model based on the prior rates.”
The ordinance was introduced in November so residents had time to mount a majority protest under Proposition 218 to stop its passage. The protest required 5,000 individuals to be successful, but it only garnered 639.
Despite falling short on the petition, there was a lengthy public comment period at the meeting that occasionally got testy between speakers and Mayor Steven Martin. Many speakers bemoaned 10 years of rate hikes and begged the council to find alternate funding mechanisms.
“I honestly don’t know what exactly the answer is, but I do think the council’s job is to find affordable solutions,” said Keith Entwistle of Paso Robles. “I just don’t see how you can justify over a 50 percent rate increase.”
One popular revenue alternative proposed during public comment was to introduce a water surcharge for tourists.
“If they tacked on an extra $5 on Friday and Saturday nights here in existing [hotel] rooms, you can do the math,” said resident Bob Barker. “Do you think people would cancel their vacation in Paso Robles because they upped the rate $5 per night? They wouldn’t even know it or care.”
City Attorney Iris Yang responded that the concept of targeting the tourism industry to pay more for water was legally tenuous.
Prior to voting in favor of the ordinance, Councilmember Fred Strong tried to put the issue into historical perspective for the public.
“The thing [the city of Paso Robles] was well known for historically was pleasing the public and kicking the can down the road,” Strong said. “When it came to our regular water supply, we relied on groundwater. That particular source is in most jeopardy for the future of this city right now. … It’s not a matter of higher taxes or lower taxes. It’s a matter of appropriate fees for what we need to do to give you a secure, safe, and sufficient supply of water.”
The council vote was on the first reading of the ordinance, and it will return to the council for a second reading on March 29.