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FPUD hikes water, sewer rates amidst questions over calculation process

At a special board meeting held June 14, the board of directors of the Fallbrook Public Utility District (FPUD) approved, in a 3-2 vote, to raise rates for both water and sewer effective July 1, 2010. The majority favoring the increases included Al Gebhart, Bert Hayden, and Don McDougal. Board members Keith Battle and Milt Davies opposed the hikes. As a result, the average FPUD customer will experience a double digit percentage increase compared to previous bills.

During a lengthy presentation on water rates, usage, and rate comparisons to neighboring districts, administration services manager Marcie Eilers noted that FPUD customers had been significantly conserving water compared to historical usage numbers.

“Our customers are doing a fantastic job conserving water, you’re conserving two times as much as we’ve asked,” said general manager Keith Lewinger to those in the audience. “We asked everyone to cut back eight percent, but we experienced a fifteen percent reduction.”

Public comment at the meeting centered on a change the district made in the way it calculates customers’ sewer charges beginning last year. In 2009, FPUD began charging customers for sewer usage based on 90 percent of the amount of water used in the preceding winter months by the customer compared to the flat rate it charged prior to that.

John Duling, DDS addressed the board and voiced his dissatisfaction over the increase in sewer charges he has experienced since the sewer rates have been calculated differently. Duling’s concern centered around a commercial property he owns on South Mission Road.

“I have proof that only 25 percent of the water used on that property is going into the sewer system,” said Duling. “And the lowest calculation that you will give me, upon appeal, is 75 percent.” Duling said he had contacted the FPUD office several times about the matter, but felt he “wasn’t getting anywhere with administration or engineering.”

Lewinger suggested Duling may have a water line leak on his property, and offered to sit down and review the situation, but Duling said “I’m not willing to listen to administration anymore; I haven’t had any luck with that; I’m here to address the board.”

Although the Notice of Public Hearing issued by FPUD regarding the June 14 meeting on sewer charges contained the wording “… implemented a rate structure based on how much wastewater each customer actually puts into the system,” as discussion continued on how sewer bills are calculated, Lewinger confirmed that FPUD does not specifically measure the amount of wastewater that goes into the sewer from any given property. He said the sewer charges are derived from total amount of water that the customer uses on his or her property in an average winter month.

“We based the sewer charge on 90 percent of the water a customer used in a recent winter month; we think that is a reasonable estimate and this is our way of getting people to shut off their water in the winter and not waste it,” said Lewinger. “It’s not okay to waste water.” Lewinger told Duling that the new year-round system for sewer charges was designed to get ratepayers to “shut off all landscape water during the winter months.”

“We overcharge you to get you to reduce your water usage,” board member Al Gebhart added, which led to a disgruntled reaction from the audience. Prior to the change in the calculation procedure in 2009, sewer charges were levied as flat rates.

“I’ve been a big supporter of this board, until now,” said Dr. T. Zikakis, who also asked the board to consider reducing the proposed rate hikes. “You all need to acknowledge this recession; a lot of people can’t afford this increase.”

One commercial property manager, who asked not to be identified, said he was “uncomfortable with an agency that charges for products or services not sold or delivered,” and questions whether the calculation procedure used by the district is “ethical or legal.”

When asked by the Village News at the meeting if FPUD has the ability to specifically measure wastewater discharge within its metering system, or knows an agency that does, Lewinger replied, “No and I’m not aware of any agency that does.”

During her review of water and wastewater rates, Eilers said she understood that Rainbow Municipal Water District (RMWD) was considering implementing the same wastewater calculation formula (based on overall water usage) that FPUD did this past year.

When questioned later, RMWD general manager Dave Seymour said there is an element of truth to that statement.

“[That] statement is partly correct; we are in the process of retaining a consultant to review our wastewater charges and help us determine if there is a more equitable way to charge for sewage treatment,” said Seymour. “The [Rainbow] board doesn’t have any preconceived notion as to whether or not we will change our methodology, but they do want to study the issue. We expect to have the consultant on board within a few weeks and should have options for board review within 90 days or so.”

There is no indication what those options will consist of, but Seymour said, “We are using the same consultant as FPUD.”

“Currently RMWD charges a monthly flat rate of $68.54 per equivalent dwelling unit (EDU),” explained Seymour. “One residential home counts as one EDU regardless of the size of the home. Commercial customers may be required to have numerous EDU’s. As example, a restaurant has to have 2.67 EDU’s, plus one additional EDU for every seven seats.”

Seymour said he does realize if the RMWD board votes for a change to the billing method, it will be with opportunity for public input.

“We realize that if we do change it could have a significant financial impact on some of our ratepayers, so we want to make sure we have all the information necessary to make an informed decision, and then fully vet any proposed changes with the ratepayers.”

In the FPUD meeting, Lewinger said wastewater could be differentiated from other water if a property had a second meter on it. When asked by the Village News if there would be a cost associated with having a second meter installed on a property by FPUD for that purpose, Lewinger admitted the addition would cost the customer between $6,000 and $10,000.

In summary of his position, Duling said, “I see that I have three choices – let my trees die; pay $2,000 a year in sewer fees – which is 50 percent more than I am using; or pay approximately $8,000 to have a second meter installed on my property.”

Three board members appeared to question Lewinger’s stated cost of a second meter for those customers interested in one.

“I disagree with [the cost]; we have to be able to come up with a new solution,” said board member Davies, with affirmative nods from Battle and McDougal.

“We can look into that and bring some options back to the board,” agreed Lewinger.

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