Customers want more time to study changes

Opposition to water-rate increases has been building on the Hill. Over the past five months, all three of the local water districts have recommended rate increases for their customers.

In December, Fern Valley Water District was the first to hold a public hearing for a proposed rate increase. Nearly 20 customers came to the session and the majority opposed or, at least, were concerned about its costs on residents.

The board addressed questions from the public and discussed the comments, but still unanimously approved the increase, which was effective Jan. 1.

On May 9, the Pine Cove Water District held a public hearing on its rate-increase proposals. More than 30 customers came to the hearing. While a few supported the need for added revenue, some recommended extending it over a longer period and most objected to any rate increase.

After the hearing concluded, the board unanimously approved the increase without any further discussion.

Idyllwild Water District has scheduled a public hearing on its rate increase for June 20. Already, customers are forming a shadow board in opposition to the increase.

In their view, the IWD board has neither explained nor demonstrated the need for more revenue. The group also argues that the public needs more time to understand how the proposal will affect customers.

“I have nothing else in my life that expects to increase 10-percent per year,” said David Lilieholm, local custom home designer. “That’s three times the rate of inflation. They haven’t shown any need for extra costs.”

When asked about the effect of the increases, three board members have each given the group different results of their impact. This uncertainty or confusion, in the opposition’s view, demonstrates the complexity of the proposal and why more time is needed for the public to fully grasp its consequences.

Further, they argue that the board has not shown any significant effort to control or reduce costs before asking for more revenue.

Lilieholm opined that IWD has benefited from revenue growth several times in the past few years. “There was an effective rate increase in 2014 when they lowered the amount of water that would not be charged for, a newly imposed late fee, a rate increase in 2017, and now they’re selling water meters.”

“The district does not look at expenses realistically,” he added, in reference to recent capital projects.

While they are frustrated with how the board seems to balance actions on expenses and greater revenue, Jeri John expressed concern for families and low-income renters.

After the IWD notice came out, she acknowledged it, but soon the county announced its intention to raise fees for the Transfer Station.

“I started getting calls,” John said. “It’s unfair to get these huge increases when people on fixed incomes barely get 2 percent.”

Then she said what the others had also pointed to, “I don’t really see the need. Is it warranted? We need time.”

And Vic Sirkin, a former IWD director, added, “[The board] is not telling why they need the money and how they will use it. They’re supposed to look out for us and treat the public with respect.”

But the group realizes that the public hearing on June 20 is barely five weeks away. That is not much time to organize the community and to convince the board for more time.

The IWD board has been preparing for the hearing and rate increase for several months. It has had Interim General Manager Jack Hoagland prepare a capital project plan for the next decade, and has retained a consulting firm to review the budget and propose a new rate structure.

On its website, the district has a page with information about the proposed rate increase, including a calculator for individuals to estimate how it might affect them based on their current water usage.

Nevertheless, these customers would like to see some demonstration that the district is making efforts to be more efficient and find ways to reduce costs before coming to the customers for more revenue.