Supervisors reject steep rate hikes (April 6, 2017)

Water, sewer bills will remain unchanged in 10 of 13 unincorporated communities amid residents’ outcry

San Bernardino County Supervisors shot down proposed water and sewer rate increases for nearly all special districts after residents denounced the recommended hikes as excessive or unnecessary.

Instead, county staff will use up to 12 months to review the state of infrastructure in each district and decide whether such rate increases are justified.

The necessity of capital upkeep mostly spurs rate hikes in the first place, and proposed small increases were approved Tuesday for three of 13 special districts that officials said required immediate capital upgrades.

But none of those districts were in the High Desert. Spring Valley Lake, Oak Hills, Oro Grande and Lenwood all were spared.

Robert Lovingood, chairman of the Board of Supervisors, said the proposed five-year increases were ultimately unwarranted and would financially burden residents in those unincorporated county areas.

Consultant recommendations would have bumped bi-monthly water rates, according to his office, an average of 63 percent ($122) in SVL; 70 percent ($117) in Oak Hills; and 81 percent ($116) in Oro Grande.

I have serious concerns about the significant cost First District constituents could incur as a result of these drastic fee increases, Lovingood said in a statement. The 5-year increase would be 71.6 percent, and that’s just for water.

By blocking increases, and keeping with current rates, Supervisors also warned that if hikes are eventually deemed necessary after further study, the hit could be harsher.

The county had sent out nearly 20,000 Proposition 218 notices and received more than 1,000 protest letters in response, according to Jeff Rigney, the director of the county’s special districts department.

But none of the districts individually struck the 50-percent-plus-1 threshold required to curtail proposed hikes.

There is over $30 million in capital projects planned among the 13 districts over the next half-decade, Rigney added, including more than $23 million in pipeline replacement projects.

There’s also $2.7 million and $450,000 reservoir projects planned for SVL and Oro Grande, respectively, and a $3 million-plus Chromium VI treatment project in Oak Hills while officials currently test for the chemical.

Several residents who spoke in opposition to hikes during Tuesday’s board meeting said they felt they were being penalized for conserving water and that the proposal’s noticing was also underwhelming.

Jim Nahom, an SVL resident, described the proposal as ‘exorbitant’ and said no one he knew had attended the localized meeting in January because its notice was buried at the bottom of residents’ water bills.

‘Everybody has all these questions,’ he said, ‘and no real way to get answers.’

The three special districts where rate increases were approved were Bloomington, Glen Helen and Searles Valley.

Residents in Searles Valley, which is in the 1st District, jointly supported the proposal ‘because of deteriorating infrastructure,’ according to Lovingood’s office.

Source: Shea Johnson, Daily Press