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Council Blocks Rise in Water Rates, Trims Sewer Fee Proposal

July 18, 1989|LEONARD BERNSTEIN | Times Staff Writer

Unconvinced about the value of proposed spending for water projects and a federally mandated sewage treatment upgrading, the San Diego City Council on Monday blocked a $4.08 monthly increase in residential water bills and approved a $3.59 rise in monthly sewer fees, lower than the $6.35 requested.

But the council, with most of its members arguing that growth must start paying for itself, approved huge increases in water and sewer hookup charges paid by developers, effective immediately.

Water hookup fees will jump 160%, from $616 to $1,651, and sewer connection charges will rise 95%, from $1,617 to $3,153. Building industry representatives have said that home buyers can expect to see those costs passed along to them.

The council also agreed to examine the effect of the new hookup charges on the cost of redevelopment projects and construction of single-room-occupancy hotels.

The council's decision to reduce the size of the sewer increase was a setback for plans to comply with federal Clean Water Act requirements for a secondary-sewage treatment system, which would cost from $2.6 billion to $2.86 billion and would remove as much as 90% of solids from effluent.

With a majority apparently stacked against the full $6.35 increase requested by the Water Utilities Department, Councilman Ron Roberts proposed that monthly sewer bills only be raised by $3.59. The additional $2.76 would have been devoted to secondary treatment planning.

$13 Average Increase

The increase will raise the average homeowner's monthly sewer bill from $13.52 to $17.11, effective immediately.

The new funds will pay for planning and, eventually, construction of water reclamation projects and the "big pipe," an outfall pipe designed to capture Mexican sewage that spills from Tijuana and route it out to sea. A small portion, approved unanimously, will pay to extend the Point Loma treatment plant's ocean outfall pipe by 8,000 feet to bring it into compliance with the state ocean plan.

The battle against upgrading sewage treatment was led by Councilmen Bruce Henderson and Bob Filner, who want Congress to exempt the city from from secondary treatment in light of scientific testimony that sewage from the city's advanced primary treatment system is not harming the ocean. The system removes about 75% of solids from sewage.

Cutting Costs

Eliminating secondary treatment--except for the facilities needed for the city's plan to cleanse sewage and reuse it for irrigation--could cut $700 million to $1.1 billion off the system's price, planners estimate.

"We think we cannot sit back and wait--on the administrative, legislative and judicial levels--for the federal government to allow a common-sense solution" to the city's sewage treatment dilemma, Filner said.

The council will reconsider the rest of the proposed sewer-rate rise in six months, giving scientists from Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the Environmental Protection Agency time to discuss whether sewage is damaging the ocean. It will also give the city more time to lobby for an exemption. In 1987, the city gave up its quest for a waiver from the Clean Water Act.

Mayor Maureen O'Connor, visibly agitated by growing sentiment against secondary treatment, called the strategy shortsighted, maintaining that the council should focus on encouraging its congressional delegation to win funding for the secondary-treatment system.

"No one has been allowed to go to absolutely zero secondary levels," O'Connor said. "What we're fighting Washington on, and what I think we should continue to fight them on, is to have a financial commitment.

"You're still going to have to face this problem eventually."

City Water Utilities Department officials said the decreased revenue will not immediately harm planning for the treatment system, which will continue. But, if funds are not provided by next June, the end of the fiscal year, financial reserves will be exhausted, said Deputy City Manager Roger Frauenfelder.

Because the six water-reclamation plants envisioned for the system, which were funded Monday, will be built built before the secondary-treatment facilities, planning can continue uninterrupted, Frauenfelder said.

Legal Strategy

The vote could, however, become a factor in the city's legal strategy as it tries to settle a lawsuit filed by the EPA and the Justice Department that seeks construction of the secondary-treatment system and millions of dollars in fines for past sewage spills. The EPA sued the city a year ago. Settlement negotiations over a construction timetable and funding plans are continuing.

Monday's vote "puts the city at some disadvantage," said Chief Deputy City Atty. Ted Bromfield. "I'll certainly stress to the court and the Justice Department that there was an overall vote to benefit the system."

A majority of the council also refused to vote for the water rate increase. Planners had sought $32.9 million to upgrade water treatment to comply with the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, nearly $40 million to replace aging water mains and pipes, and $4.5 million to pay for a new charge levied by the County Water Authority. Still more money would have gone into the Water Utilities Department's reserves.

But only Roberts, O'Connor and Councilman Wes Pratt supported the increase.

"Until I understand the whole program, I'm not going to support it," Filner said.

The increase was not scheduled to go into effect until Jan. 1. Planners will make their case to the council again before then.

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