June 5, 2013

Water rates raised for county desert customers

By Courtney Vaughn
Hi-Desert Star

SAN BERNARDINO — Water-rate increases for San Bernardino County Special Districts customers were approved Tuesday by the Board of Supervisors.

Rates for County Service Areas in Landers, Pioneertown and Morongo Valley will rise July 18.

The rate hikes will ensure that user fees pay for district operations, according to Jeff Rigney, director of the Special Districts Water and Sanitation Department.

The county received letters of protest from each of the local districts, but none of the areas yielded enough letters to stop the increases, county staff reported.

Notices of the proposed increases were mailed to property owners, but many tenants, who pay the water bills for a property, did not receive notice.

If one more than half a district’s property owners protest fee increases, the additional fees cannot be levied.

Property owners from around the county lamented the county’s water rate structure Tuesday during the Board of Supervisors meeting.

Judy Corl-Lorono, a director of Bighorn-Desert View Water Agency and a Landers resident, spoke to the board as a resident Tuesday.

“I’m here to speak for the seniors, unemployed, those who are on food stamps,” Corl-Lorono said. “We have to trust you to do your due diligence …. It appears that your rate increases are on auto pilot, giving rate payers a 50 percent increase over the next three years.”

Corl-Lorono said she often talks to seniors in the county’s outlying areas who say they must choose between bathing or providing water for pets.

“It’s a disadvantaged community and this is a really big rate increase for a community,” Marina West, general manager of Bighorn-Desert View and a special districts customer, said Friday.

West doesn’t believe county water ratepayers have been given sufficient explanation of why the rate increases are needed. She said many customers have had trouble getting pertinent budget information from the county’s special districts department.

“I don’t think they have much accountability. In the grand scheme of county operations, special district areas out here could be just a rounding error,” West said.

Within the Morongo Basin’s four county water districts, the monthly fee to maintain service on a 3/4-inch meter ranges from $29.36 to $58.78. Increases on monthly fees and water consumption rates range from 19 percent on monthly fees in Landers and Pioneertown, to 51 percent on consumption rates for higher water users in Morongo Valley.

Most county water districts have raised fees each year, but this year marks a bigger jump for some districts than in previous years.

The higher fees will sustain district operations and allow the department of water and sanitation to establish reserve accounts and contingency funds in each of its special districts. The fees will not be used to improve water quality, Rigney said.

He explained by phone Friday that the county’s water districts typically have large areas of infrastructure to maintain, but a very small base of rate payers to cover the costs.

“It essentially comes down to economies of scale,” Rigney said. “We’re just trying to get the districts to where they need to be to sustain the infrastructure.” Rigney anticipates that eventually, rates will be more stable once the district has sufficient funding. He said the special districts department has reduced its operational and internal costs, in addition to reviewing water rates.