By Jeremy Los
August 19, 2011 (La Mesa)--Water rates are set to increase yet again after the Helix Water District board voted Tuesday to raise the district water rates yesterday. The board faced a firing squad of comments from concerned and angered citizens about the rate hikes scheduled to be implemented on September 1, 2011.
The board passed the increase by a vote of 4-1 with the lone opposing vote cast by Director Kathleen Hedberg.
The increased rates will show up on consumers’ bills starting in November. The average domestic water user, which the district estimates at 24 units (1 unit = 748 gallons), can expect to see an increase of 5.9 percent, or $6.46 on their bi-monthly bill.
The board faced heavy criticism from the 30-40 citizens in attendance as many challenged the officials’ fiscal responsibility and their commitment to the ratepayers. Heated discussions ultimately led the board's counsel to issue a warning to members of the crowd that they were committing a felony act after a member of the crowd interrupted the meeting to yell out “I hear a lot of ifs,” during a conversation between Hedberg and General Manager Mark Weston.
Lemon Grove City Council member Howard Cook used his time at the podium to announce that the City of Lemon Grove has voted to formally oppose the rate increase.
“The City Council considers the Helix Water District has not taken appropriate amount of fiscal reform needed to justify a rate increase,” said Cook. “Now is not the appropriate time for a rate increase…many Lemon Grove citizens struggle with job loss and/or reduction of employment and struggle to live in the city.”
The rate structure came under fire as well; 99-year-old William Ridgeway labeled it as discriminatory because it charges one family a higher rate than another strictly due to the size of the family.
As commonly occurs at Helix Water District meetings, much of the arguments from ratepayers centered on the districts employee benefits and pensions.
“You need to first tighten up your costs. Your pensions are ridiculous. They’re much more generous than those of your rate payers,” said Russell Buckley with East County Tax Hawks.
Labeled as the voice of the ratepayers by those in attendance, Director Hedberg stated that the district amassed extra revenue this past year due to purchasing less water than originally anticipated (The district only purchased $20 million as opposed to $23 that was budgeted for).
“We have an extra $4 million available that we did not anticipate to offset the rate increase this year,” said Hedberg. “Right now is an economic challenge for people, we need to give them a break.”
As previously reported, the hikes are due in large part to the rising cost of wholesale water, which is said to have increased by 16.5 percent, or $3.8 million. The rates are going to increase even though the region has seen two wet winters back-to-back allowing for more runoff to be used--and conservation rates have never been higher.
"Conservation does drive up the cost to a certain extent," said General Manager Mark Weston back in July. "There are fixed costs and overhead that need to be recovered in running the district,” he concluded, “and there is less revenue with less water use."
In neighboring Padre Municipal Water District, the board faced a similar issue but voted for belt-tightening measures to avoid raising rates on consumers who cut back consumption.
But here in the Helix Water District, ratepayers who heeded the district’s call to conserve water will be penalized by paying higher rates—a decision that may spell rough waters ahead for board members seeking reelection next year.
"Mr. Muse, Mr. Smith, Mr. Linden, all three of your seats are up from grabs at the next election," John L. Wood of Lemon Grove told the board members. "I would suggest to the ratepayers that they don’t wait that long. Do a recall now!"
He further admonished District General Manager Mark Weston, "Mr. Weston, I don’t know when your contract is up, I don’t really care. But I would suggest that it be rescinded immediately or not renewed when it is time. I believe you to be an overpaid used car peddler that will tell people what they want to hear--but you don’t tell them everything."