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City Officials Predict Sewer Fee Increase of Up to 10%

September 13, 1997|HUGO MARTIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Only a year after the Los Angeles City Council approved a controversial plan to cut sewer fees for most San Fernando Valley and Westside residents, city officials are predicting a citywide fee increase of up to 10%.

The rate hike--which would raise the average monthly fee from $20.75 to $22.92--is needed to make up for $12 million that was diverted from a sewer maintenance fund to help balance the city's budget last year, city officials said.

Although the increase is relatively small--it adds up to an additional $26 a year for each homeowner--council members are nervous about the reaction from constituents who already complain about paying too much in city fees.

Valley lawmakers are particularly concerned because they won a hard-fought battle last year to cut fees for their constituents and now face an increase that will wipe the savings out.

A new rate formula that cut fees for Valley and Westside residents was narrowly approved last year despite protests from seven council members who complained because the reductions came at the expense of inner-city communities.

On average, Valley residents pay about $25 less annually under the new rates.

The fee cuts were prompted by complaints from Valley residents who said the sewer-rate formula was unfair to them because it was based on how much water homeowners use. Because Valley residents tend to have larger lots, they argued that most of their water ends up in their lawns and garden--not in the sewers.

"I worked very hard to try to make that [fee] one that made more sense and was more affordable," said Councilwoman Laura Chick, whose West Valley constituents got a $22 cut in annual sewer fees after last year's council decision.

Chick has asked city staff members to figure out a way to avoid the fee increases. The matter will be discussed by the council Tuesday.

"If we raise the fee in this case, it won't be based on the true sewer costs for each resident but on the fact that we pulled money out for other uses and that doesn't seem right to me," she said.

Councilman Hal Bernson responded to the prediction of a fee increase by calling for the formation of a task force to audit the city's entire sewer operation.

The city's Bureau of Sanitation has predicted a 3.5% increase in fees will be needed in 2000 and a 6.7% increase the following year.

The fee increases will come just as several Valley council members will be finishing their last terms in office and looking to run for other elected posts.

According to city officials, the higher rates would be needed to make up for $12 million that Mayor Richard Riordan diverted from the Bureau of Sanitation's sewer fund account to help eliminate a $101-million deficit in the city's general fund last year.

Each year the city's Bureau of Sanitation, which operates the city's massive sewer system, pays about $8 million into the general fund through a so-called "franchise fee." Last year Riordan proposed increasing that fee to $20 million. The council approved the increase.

The only way to avoid a hike in rates, city officials say, is to find ways to cut about $5 million a year in the cost of operating and maintaining the city's sewer system.

That is exactly what the mayor's office hopes to do.

"We expect to find efficiencies from the bureau and from other bureaus," said Lorenzo Tyner, an assistant deputy mayor.

Tyner also said the predicted fee increases should not be blamed solely on the $12 million the mayor diverted to balance the budget. He said other factors, such as higher construction costs, may play a role in the increased fees.

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