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Issues - WATER AND SEWER (2/5/20)


If we were to start over in designing our city and its services, we would probably not choose to run our own water and wastewater systems. These are expensive and technologically advanced processes that require both skilled employees and a large enough customer base to spread costs. 


But that is not where we are, and we cannot go backwards. Our customer base is not large enough to spread costs to more users.  And our utilities infrastructure is old and, in many places, in need of repair or replacement.


For too many years, past City Councils have not been willing to address the fact that our utility system was in need of serious maintenance and improvements, and that rates would have to be raised to pay for it. Those Councils also knew that doing so would result in predictable anger  from voters.  In 2016, the Water and Wastewater Utility Fund was heading into a deficit situation, and the City Council bit the bullet and decided to raise rates. 


The 2016 action to increase water and sewer rates was approved on a 3-2 vote, with Strawbridge, Patterson and Schwartzman in favor and Campbell and Hughes opposed. All of the Council saw the need to raise rates, but differed on how fast to raise them, and by how much. The approved plan front-loaded the rate increases, with the five year schedule (2017-2021), showing large increases in the first few years and lower increases in later years.


The installation of new smart water meters was part of that action, and once they were installed, the City had a more accurate measure of where treated water was going (as a lot more water had been leaving the treatment plant than was being billed). It also allowed customers to have a real time measure of their water use, and warnings if there were a leak. 


However, these changes (and increased rates) were rolled out simultaneously,  in the middle of summer when water use was at its peak. The new bills were truly surprising and troubling for customers who may not have paid much, (if any), attention to the issue. There was not, in my opinion,  sufficient outreach or explanation by the City as to why the new bills had increased so much. And there was insufficient help for those who experienced shockingly high bills (especially those whose old meters were under-reporting usage).


Another thing that caused bills to spike, but which is not really discussed at all, is that part of the service/maintenance charges on our bill consists of payments for pensions owed to current and former utility workers. These pension payments are required, based on contracts negotiated with city unions years ago, and cannot be negotiated away. Of course, these pension costs could be transferred to the General Fund, but either way the cost is going to be paid by the City residents. Shifting it from the utility bill to the General Fund would lower utility bills, but would mandate raising fees or cutting services elsewhere.   


What can be done to lower bills? 


The most immediate and substantive way to lower bills is to transfer the bi-monthly sewer portion of the bill to the property tax. This would result in an immediate, significant lowering of bills for our customers. Several local utilities already do this (EBMUD, Central Contra Costa Sanitary District, Delta Diablo, City of Vallejo). The bill, of course, would still need to be paid, but it would be attached to the property tax bill that is paid once or twice a year instead of bi-monthly. In addition, the bill is paid by the property owner rather than a tenant. (Of course owners could add this cost to rent, but all may not do that.)  While some property taxes are deductible you would need to check with your tax attorney or accountant before deducting any sewer charges.


These fixes should be implemented as soon as possible. Customers should not have to wait until after the November election for a new Council to take action, when we could be lowering the cost now. I will continue to advocate for this fix as we discuss water and sewer rates in the months ahead.  

A final note: One of the benefits of the City’s new smart meter system is the ability to provide customers with close to real time reporting and analysis of your water consumption.  If you haven’t already signed up for Benicia’s WaterInsight program, learn more at  Sign up:




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