Some McKinleyville residents are up in arms overp increases in their water and sewer bills. The new rates, which go into effect Jan. 1, will continue to rise each year until January of 2023. About 10 residents appeared at a public hearing held by the McKinleyville Community Services District on Nov. 7 to make their displeasure known.
The district uses a complex matrix of figures to calculate the bills. It is assumed that most of the water entering a home ends up in the sewage system; thus the highest item on the bill is called the sewer bill. Another portion of the same bill is derived from the costs of operating the water system. There are different rates depending on what size pipeline customers have entering their homes and tiered rates based on the amount of water a customer uses and the wastewater he or she generates. Some customers utilize district water service but operate on septic systems and consequently don't pay wastewater fees.
When calculating rates, the "water" portion of the bill and the "sewer" portion of the bill are calculated separately and then added together. Both these portions are scheduled to rise. (Ratepayers who want a more comprehensive explanation of these costs should read page 8 of the 2018-2019 Fall-Winter Newsletter and Activity Guide available online at http://mckinleyvillecsd.com/activity-guide.)
According to a six-page information packet sent to all customers, the water portion of the bill for an average customer will increase about 7 percent next year, as will the sewer portion of the bill. This means a customer paying $50 a month for water and sewer services will see that number spike to $53.50 come January.
But that's just the first increase. It will be followed by combined increases of 6.5 percent, 4.5 percent, 3 percent and 3 percent each January through 2023, at which point the district will mull whether another rate increase is necessary. That means the customer currently paying $50 a month will see his or her rates increase each January to a total of $63.17 a month — a 26 percent jump — in January of 2023.
According to state law (Proposition 218, passed in 1996), when a community service district or local government wants to increase its rates, it must inform all its customers through the mail and offer them the chance to make a written protest. If more than half the customers protest in writing by the date of the public hearing, the rate increase is blocked.
The McKinleyville Community Services District informed all its customers, approximately 6,000 residents, of the proposed change and how to protest it, using envelopes stuffed with six pages of information. Apparently few people read the material, understood it or cared enough to protest because, by the hearing date, only 27 letters of protest had been received.
The procedure seemed to baffle those members of the public who spoke at the Nov. 7 meeting. Some wanted to know when the election on this issue would occur only to be informed that it was already happening.
Others asked if low-income families could receive a break and were informed by General Manager Greg Orsini that state law prohibited unequal treatment of ratepayers. Proposition 218 only allows governments to charge enough to cover the cost of providing a service, which makes it illegal for them to charge certain customers more in an effort to subsidize the rates of their low- or fixed-income residents.
Orsini emphasized that the rate increase was needed to replace the town's aging pipe system and that none of it would subsidize new development.
He told the North Coast Journal that next time a rate increase is being considered, likely some time in 2023, the district's envelopes will be conspicuously marked as "Timely: Action Requested. This affects your water and sewer bills."
Elaine Weinreb is a freelance journalist. She tries to re-pay the state of California for giving her a degree in Environmental Studies and Planning (Sonoma State University) at a time when tuition was still affordable.Editor's Note: This story was updated from a previous version that incorrectly calculated the rate increases. The Journal regrets the error.