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Water rates won't rise for now Allison K. Sampite | Sat, Sep 03 2011 12:00 PM

The Sweetwater Authority water board of directors changed direction after voting in June to include a 2.5 percent water rate increase on South Bay irrigation customers who live in National City, Bonita and some parts of Chula Vista.

Last week, frustrated residents filled the Sweetwater Authority's chamber to capacity, criticizing the board for considering another water rate hike.

The increase would have gone into effect Sept. 1 and generated $750,000 a year to help fund operating and capital costs.

The Authority is currently dealing with a budget gap, which created the possibility for a greater rate increase next year.

A county pass-through charge of 2 to 2.5 percent will still be implemented Jan. 1., increasing customers bimonthly bills from $1.13 to $32.19, depending on water usage.

Board members voted 5-2 against the increase, with chairmen Ron Morrison and Bud Pocklington supporting the increase.

Morrison said residents, mainly from the Bonita Highlands Homeowners Association, are using popular arguments that have nothing to do with the situation.

"This isn't about high income versus low income," he said. "This is about low water users versus high water users."

An increase in September created a new rate structure with an average increase of 5.6 percent and was aimed at encouraging customers to conserve water.

Many residents claimed their bills doubled and tripled.

"I'm not here to question your motives ... I am here to demonstrate that the directions you've chosen to take ... have had some personally damaging and unintended consequences," Bonita resident Don Scovel said in his opening remarks to the board last week. "I'm 5/8-inch meter number 33586279 and that's the way you folks know me."

Board members who voted down the increase said they were willing to rethink the tiered rate structure and asked water officials to examine the increases.

The Authority's finance director, Rich Stevenson, said the decision to vote down the increase is two-fold.

"If we can't find ways to reduce our budget before the end of the fiscal year, probably in June we'd be reporting to the board on a need to have a rate increase to fund any shortfall," he said.

"The other thing is since we're looking at making changes to the current rate structure, if we do reduce rates for customers in the higher tier, the lower water users would see an increase in their bills as well."

Stevenson said the Authority is also looking at possible budget reductions to offset the decision, such as deferring capital projects or the new capital reserve fund.

Board member Jose Preciado said holding off on an increase until the current rate structure is studied allows the board to make an informed decision.

Stanley Baggett has lived in Chula Vista for more than 25 years.

"I've done everything that's been asked of me to conserve water," he said. "What has the Sweetwater Authority done to help reduce the water?"

Stevenson said residents have a perception that they're conserving water when they are actually using similar amounts.

"The average for the entire Authority should run between 20 and 27 units," he said. "Anything beyond that is above average. The larger water users are seeing 60 to 80 cubic feet per billing."

The tiered structure has many Bonita residents speaking out against a structure that targets larger properties and/or families.

"A tiered rate means the more irrigation you need for landscaping the higher price you have to pay for it," Stevenson said. "That's our problem; we have one rate structure for all our residents."

Preciado said in the end the board could make a decision residents don't agree with.

"But it will be in the best interest of the 33,000 meters and ratepayers, not just a small group," he said.

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