In 2018, Fern Valley Water District customers will see higher water bills. After the public hearing Friday, Dec. 29, FVWD directors unanimously approved the proposed increase for the basic charge and rate changes.

Nearly 20 people attended the hearing and most raised questions about the need for an increase, ways to reduce expenses or simply the amount of the increase. The questions and responses from the directors lasted nearly 90 minutes.

While most of the discussion focused on the proposed increase, several residents brought concerns about water quality to the board’s attention and a desire to direct some of the added revenue toward improving the quality of the district’s product.

For example, Fern Valley resident Judi Milin, and she was not alone, asked questions about the proposal and the district’s expenses, but when water quality became a topic, she said, “My biggest concern going forward is improving water quality.

“At my place, it’s pretty poor water quality. It’s not what it was and has dropped significantly,” Milin continued. “I’ve complained about the dirty taste for four years and it’s not fixed. I don’t mind the increase, but I want it to go for something like improving water quality.”

But she and others had questions and objections to the increase, or at least the size of the increase.

General Manager Victor Jimenez began the public hearing with an explanation of the need for the increase and how it would be implemented. He stressed that for an average bill (which is for two months) the added cost would be $23.80, for a total bi-monthly bill of $100. The monthly increase would be about $12.

The first water tier will be $4 per hundred cubic feet compared to the current rate of $4.35 per hundred cubic feet, Jimenez added.

But comparing the new rates to old water costs, meter charges increased significantly. For a customer with a 5/8-inch meter, but no water usage, the water bill increases from $32.70 bi-monthly to $60, nearly an 85-percent increase.

For the average customer who uses 5,600 gallons every two months, the water cost increases $24.67 (38 percent), from $65.33 bi-monthly to $90.

For large water users, there would be a decrease because of the elimination of the highest rate tier. These customers, a mere handful, use about 30,000 gallons per period.

One of the first questions was where will the added revenues be directed, and are they needed for staffing or increased salaries.

The added revenue would support reserves and capital projects going forward, Jimenez and Director Robert Krieger stressed to the public.

One of the newly established reserve accounts would be for years or periods of drought when the public does conserve and reduce water consumption, which results in a less revenue for the district.

“When drought years don’t generate the revenues we expect, then we don’t need to raise rates immediately,” Jimenez said about the need for this reserve account.

Without the rate increase, the district estimates that its reserves, which are about $1.2 million currently, will be consumed for operations and capital investments by 2022.

Director Richard Schnetzer and Jimenez replied that FVWD does not offer the highest salaries on the Hill nor intend to increase staff. But salaries need to be competitive with other nearby districts in order to get quality staff.

People asked whether the district had spoken to Southern California Edison about lower electric rates, whether it was maximizing its use of stream water, whether a rain-barrel program could be offered to conserve water, size of payroll, whether salaries could be capped and the cost of health insurance.

Several addressed their surprise at the need for the increase and its size. They noted that many Fern Valley residents rely on Social Security and even $12 per month is a large increase for a necessity.

“Everybody sees the increase as too much too fast,” said one person. Then Milin told the board that “the increases seemed unfair to many people.”

The board acknowledged this and replied that rates have not increased in more than seven years. That is one reason it seems so steep. If an increase had been imposed in 2014, after the last five-year period, this change would be a smaller amount.

All revenue goes for projects and staff to provide water to its customers.

“We’re a water district and provide the service at cost,” Krieger replied. “There are no profits, no dividends. All costs go to provide adequate supply of high-quality water.”

While the proposal allows for a 5-percent annual rate increase, Krieger promised that the board would review the need for an increase and it size each year.

The final vote was 3-0. Directors Trischa Clark, Krieger and Schnetzer voted for the proposal. President James Rees was absent and the board has a vacancy.