“Why can’t we charge people the right cost at the right time?” – Board member Kathleen Hedberg
By Kristin Kjaero
November 27, 2009 (La Mesa) - - On November 18, the Helix Water District Board dived into controversial waters, voting to hold a public hearing in June on a proposal to raise rates 12.6% effective July 10, 2010 plus an additional 7.5% effective July 1, 2011. The proposal triggered a heated discussion whether to hikes rates before the Board knows how much its water costs will be raised.
Metropolitan Water District, from which the County Water Authority (and subsequently Helix) buys water, has said it will discuss raising its price when it meets in January to set its budget, but has not established the rate.
Helix last raised rates a minimum 21% effective a little over two months ago, using a tiered structure it said was aimed at encouraging an 8% conservation target. Although the initial tiered structure proposed was softened, the public conserved more than anticipated, resulting in a budget gap for the District.
The Board passed the schedule recommended by staff, in a staff report which listed several possible schedules and noted, “The data used to estimate the rates is very preliminary; the actual rate increase presented for approval will likely change based on actual wholesale water costs and the District's proposed operating budget for next year.”
La Mesa resident Dexter Levy, who spoke against raising rates before the District knows costs, pointed out that the last increase was also based on unknown anticipated costs. “Because we saved more water and Metropolitan did not increase costs as much as anticipated, we actually overpaid. They should not be charging us for something they haven’t been charged for,” Levy said. Levy’s family was active in the original formation of the District, and the R.M. Levy Treatment plant is named after his uncle.
Mark Schuppert, President of Grossmont-Mt. Helix Improvement Association with 1,000 members, also spoke against both increasing rates in anticipation as well as the proposed timing. He handed out calculations he said show that, by starting the percent increase during the highest billing cycle of the year, it will result in the highest dollar increase to customers.
“12% doesn’t sound as bad as 19%, but it does if you have to pay for it before getting the service,” Schuppert told East County Magazine. “There's no downside for them. If they underestimate they can always increase, and if they overestimate, I don't see them giving us a rebate.”
After public testimony, a heated Board discussion ensued.
Board Member Kathleen Hedberg said she could not in good conscience raise rates before knowing what their cost will be. "Unless we're dead on on the estimate, we're making a big mistake." She challenged her colleagues, “Why can’t we charge people the right cost at the right time?”
Board Member John Linden vehemently disagreed, raising his voice that the only fiscally responsible course is to raise rates as soon as possible. Despite the earlier public testimony, Linden said that he did not see anyone there to object. "We know what the figures are. We have all the figures we need to make a good sound decision."
Board Member Deanna Verbeke made the motion to support the schedule recommended by staff, with the addition to revisit it later. The vote passed 3-1, Linden, Smith and Verbeke for, Hedberg against, and Muse absent.
“We’ll be interested in knowing what the actual increases are in March," Schuppert said. "At that point we’ll be interested in knowing, does this increase reflect the actual increase to them, or will it also include their own expenses such as pension and benefit packages? Because we conserved, will we have to pay a higher rate per gallon?”
In his comments, General Manager Mark Weston concluded, "Water budgets are the next step. Over the next few months we're going to be looking a lot more closely at it."