Council vote launches debate over water, sewer hike

Now that the City Council has overwhelmingly voted to adopt Mayor Jerry Sander's plan to fund critical water and wastewater upgrades citywide by hiking sewer and water rates, the debate over whether it was a smart, necessary or even an appropriate move continues.

Last week, the City Council voted 7 to 1 in favor for wastewater, 6 to 2 in favor for water, sanctioning the mayor's new plan calling for San Diegans to pay progressively higher water and sewer rates over the next four years. Residential utility bills will rise about $27 - 35 percent - during that interval.

The impact on businesses, at issue during Council deliberations, is less certain and more variable, with smaller rate increases anticipated for them next year. Commercial and industrial rates are also expected to rise in subsequent years.

"I commend the City Council for adopting a plan that allows us to fix the water and wastewater systems," said Sanders, noting the utility rate increase will be used to begin construction of overdue projects to repair and improve the city's water and sewer infrastructure. "The package of improvements they approved will let us get back on track toward meeting our responsibilities and ensuring the safety and reliability of these systems into the future."

Noting the city must begin construction projects soon on overhaul of its water and wastewater systems required by state and federal decrees, Sanders added: "The city has been forced to delay the projects necessary to meet our obligations under the Compliance Order and Consent Decree for too many years. The plan approved by the Council shows the city is committed to meeting these obligations and to moving forward with the critical projects required for these systems."

Responding to the City Council's favorable vote on the utility-rate increases, Michael Shames, executive director of the Utility Consumers Action Network (UCAN), a non-profit consumer watchdog group, stopped short of criticizing the council's decision, while finding fault with the process by which it was derived.

"I have no idea whether, or how much, of this water increase is warranted," said Shames. "The part that concerns me is that nobody else has a good idea as to whether all of the rate increase is necessary."

Arguing the Council does not have the technical expertise, Shames pointed out they didn't access an independent expert to justify the rate increase. "There's no such thing as a truly independent auditor," said Shames, "when you are choosing the auditor, and you are paying the bill, because that auditor who worked for you wants the repeat business. I challenge the city, in this case, to come up with an independent, informed auditor to determine that the process was sound, and the rate increase may be warranted. The city didn't do that."

Council President Scott Peters, whose First District includes La Jolla, stood by the Council's decision on the rate increases. "There's no doubt the work is absolutely necessary," Peters said. "We had a sewer spill a day in 2000. We started replacing pipes at a faster rate and cleaning the entire (sewer) system. Since 2001, we've reduced sewer spills 83 percent, and beach closures 77 percent. That work has to continue."

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