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Council OKs new water and sewer fee structure

February 24, 2014

Mike Johnston, owner of rental property in the City of Bishop, asks Public Works Director Dave Grah (r) and the City Council to reconsider some of the rates in the new water and sewer rate fee structure, which charges more for small rental units than it does large, four-bedroom houses. The council approved the new schedule as presented. Photo by Marilyn Blake Philip

Effective July 1, City of Bishop property owners and other ratepayers will see a new water and sewer rate fee schedule that officials believe is simplified and more equitable.
Despite a few protests, the City Council adopted the 2014-19 fee schedule earlier this month, which includes increases in some places and decreases in others. Overall, according to the council, the new structure is the fairest way to charge system users in the absence of meters.
The fee schedule was based on the 2013 Water and Sewer Rate Study initiated last spring.
“We are close to the end of a long process,” Public Works Director David Grah said at the Feb. 10 City Council meeting. “We have worked to maintain the financial health of the water and sewer system and fair rates” with equity as a main goal.
The city can only charge as much as it costs to run and maintain the water and sewer systems – in other words, the city’s rate schedule was not built with profit in mind.
However, before the council approved the new rate schedule, public comment was invited. Prior to this final hearing, the city had received four written protests in response to city invitations for public input since spring 2013, when the city began sending rate study and proposed rate schedule notices to more than 1,200 ratepayers.
According to the Feb. 10 City Council agenda packet, Carol and Richard Nichols and Damon Cherenzia submitted letters of protest. Cherenzia said that during “these harsh economic times” when incomes are stagnant, the public is “getting squeezed out of every penny we make” as the cost of living increases “all around us.”
At the Nov. 13 Bishop Water and Sewer Commission meeting, the Bishop Lions Club asked for reconsideration of rates which it pays at the Boy Scouts Building, 420 W. Line St. “The building is used about four to five times a month for only a couple hours each time.” At the same meeting, the commision considered property owner Michael Johnston’s email request “to consider charging residential properties by bedroom counts (for a) more equal rate structure” that reflects the number of occupants and their water usage. At that time, Commissioner John Martin explained that “water and sewer fees are for providing service not for usage.”
Before City Council approved the new 2014-19 rates, Johnston took the podium. The owner of four residential rental units said, “I pay $148 per month for four units but a four-bedroom house (pays) two and a half times lower. Let’s base the rate on the number of beds, the same for everyone,” Johnston said. As it stands, “I will have to deal with (these new higher rates) for five more years.” Johnston also said he had attended a water and sewer rate meeting but “the consultant didn’t show up.”
Saying that all comment and protest were appreciated, Grah acknowledged that what Johnston “says makes a lot of sense” but that it would be difficult to make changes to the ratepayer schedule at this point. More than 50 percent of ratepayers needed to submit written protests to defeat approval of the new schedule, but the issue Johnston raised is “definitely something we can continue to look at,” Grah said.
Property owners and ratepayers have been kept abreast of the entire rate study process and were invited to all relevant Public Works and regular Water and Sewer Commission meetings and public hearings, starting with the May 2013 Water and Sewer workshop. The public has been notified through direct mailings, the news media and city website postings.
While  Mayor Jim Ellis also agreed that Johnston “brings up a good point,” he said, “over all, it looks like there’s a lot of equity in the new rates.” Councilman Keith Glidewell said, “We’re lucky not to be on a flat rate” and Councilmember Laura Smith added, “It’s safe to say that it won’t be happening any time soon.”
Bishop Water and Sewer Commission Chairman Joe Pecsi, who had been sitting in the audience with fellow commissioners Harry Bhakta and Martin, then took the podium. “We worked really hard on this. None of us wanted to raise fees, like in 2004; that was pretty ugly. Equity is not a simple thing. (Grah) and his crew did an excellent job.”
The new rate schedule includes a 1.1 percent increase, affecting 570 single-family residences and 5.2 to 11.5 percent decreases for its 1,300 multi-resident units, Grah said. One “big change” is a 63 percent decrease affecting Bishop’s 39 gas station islands and a 29 percent decrease to its 870 hotel rooms. Mentioning the annual overall 2 percent increase, Grah said that the 2014 $64 single-family-residence rate will increase to $69 by 2018.
Based on an obligatory study conducted by Sustainable Resource Engineering, the new water and sewer fees will support “financially healthy” systems, Grah said, by funding “critical repairs and replacements to the city’s infrastructure; compliance with mandated health and environmental requirements; and improve fairness.” Rates will come under review again in 2017.
For more information, contact (760) 873-8458 or publicworks@ca-bishop.us or visit the Public Works page at www.ca-bishop.us.

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