Ventura County's major water supplier has agreed to its fourth annual rate hike, a move that could boost most residents' monthly bills starting this summer.
But a local water distributor may offset the increase by cutting an annual water charge levied on property tax bills.
The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which funnels water through regional agencies to nearly 500,000 customers in Ventura County, voted on Tuesday to approve the 7% increase beginning July 1.
Designed to pay for improved water quality systems, the increase would affect residents and commercial customers in Simi Valley, Thousand Oaks, Moorpark, Camarillo and parts of Oxnard.
If the rate hike were passed directly to the customer, the monthly bill for a typical household could increase by as much as $1.12, said Don Kendall, general manager of the Calleguas Municipal Water District.
Water rates for all five cities are determined by Calleguas, which tonight will consider changing its billing format to separate the actual cost of water from other charges.
Officials said the new format could help insulate customers from future rate increases and might allow the district to drop a $9.58-per-acre water charge it added to property tax bills last year.
On average, an individual household uses about half an acre, or 163,000 gallons, of water a year. The Calleguas board is expected to vote on water rate increases at its March 16 meeting.
Calleguas began pursuing the new rate structure last fall after customers complained about the district's rates and Metropolitan's annual price hikes. After maintaining flat rates for five years, Metropolitan levied increases of 13% in 1991, 23% in 1992 and 19% in 1993.
Critics charged that the MWD increases unfairly saddled Ventura County customers with the cost of water projects in other parts of Southern California, including a $1.5-billion reservoir in Riverside County.
In Ventura County, Calleguas passed on those increases, in addition to price hikes for its own projects.
"One of our objections has been that they do tend to look at the district as an indistinguishable entity," Simi Valley Mayor Greg Stratton said. "Everybody pays the same, but not everybody benefits from the new projects."
Kendall said that itemizing charges for construction and other expenses will allow the district to charge customers for specific projects.
"Traditionally they have just thrown the increase on," Kendall said. "We're trying to find a way to keep the rates flatter."
But MWD spokesman Bob Muir said some of the funds from the annual increase are being used to build a $320-million, 23-mile pipeline to pump water into Ventura County along a route parallel to the Santa Paula Freeway.
The line, called the West Valley Project, would serve parts of the San Fernando Valley and would act as a backup to the Santa Susana pipeline, MWD's only link to the Conejo Valley. That link was severed for several days after the Jan. 17 earthquake.
"Certainly the earthquake has drawn more attention to the demand and need for the West Valley Project," Muir said.
Public hearings are scheduled for the fall to discuss the environmental impact of the project, planned for construction in 1997.
Camarillo City Manager Bill Little, who said he had not reviewed the MWD plan, said he would withhold judgment on the rate increase until Calleguas decides how much to pass on to its customers.
"We'll have to see what it does to our rates before we start hollering," Little said.
The board of directors of the Calleguas Municipal Water District meets today at 7:30 p.m. at 2100 Olsen Road, Thousand Oaks.