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Expansion Plan May Double O.C. Sewer Fees

Sanitation officials are scheduled to decide whether to approve the increase over five years.

June 23, 2003|Dan Weikel | Times Staff Writer

When Orange County's largest sewer agency improves waste treatment and expands capacity to meet future population growth, somebody will have to pay -- perhaps twice what they do today.

Planning a $2.36-billion capital improvement program, the Orange County Sanitation District's board of directors will decide Wednesday whether to double sewer fees for hundreds of thousands of homes, businesses, and institutions over the next five years.

The money is needed to rebuild or replace the district's aging pumps and sewer mains, some of which are more than 60 years old, district officials said. The rest will be used to increase plant capacity, improve ground water replenishment programs and meet environmental laws with full secondary treatment.

Whether to adopt the costly two-stage process became controversial a year ago, when environmentalists pressed the district to cancel a federal waiver allowing it to discharge less-treated waste water into the ocean. Though it was never proven, there was concern that effluent from its outfall off Huntington Beach might have contributed to a high rate of beach closures.

Board members who support the improvements say rate hikes are vital to upgrade the system and provide service for at least 400,000 additional people by 2020.

Annual fees could double from $87.50 to $175 per single-family home over five years. New rates for the district's half-million customers in north and central Orange County will remain below the national average of $244, according to a survey of hundreds of sewer agencies. Another study shows the average California bill is $242.

"If we don't do the major things now, it will cost us more in the future, and we will no longer have the reliable facilities we take for granted," said Shirley McCracken, OCSD board president and Anaheim councilwoman.

Other board members question the scale of the improvements and whether fees must be raised in all five years. They expressed concern about ratepayers, especially those on fixed incomes, and worried that proposed improvements would face cost overruns like many public works projects and force rates even higher.

"We need to go from a wish list to a priority list," said Norm Eckenrode, Placentia councilman and 12-year board member. "We are not planning properly for our expenditures in the future. If we take care of everything on that wish list over the next 10 years, we are looking at bills of $500 to $600 a year" per home.

The agency's 25 directors are scheduled to consider the rate hikes after a public hearing at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the district's Fountain Valley headquarters. Officials expect a lively discussion by directors, and it is unclear whether the proposed hikes will get the two-thirds vote required to pass.

If approved, sewer fees would increase 15% a year for five years. The increase would appear on December property tax bills.

Average fees for businesses that don't need discharge permits would increase by at least $142 every year, district figures show. Annual rate hikes would average $1,938 or more for large users with waste water permits, such as hospitals, manufacturing plants and commercial operations.

Annual sewer fees for single-family residences are $328 in Los Angeles, $585 in San Diego and $588 in San Francisco, according to a statewide study by Black & Veatch, a national engineering and consulting firm.

The Orange County district serves about 2.4 million people and 22 cities from Irvine northward. Two treatment facilities -- one in Fountain Valley, the other in Huntington Beach -- process about 234 million gallons of waste a day, an amount projected to increase to 321 million gallons a day by 2020. Present capacity is about 276 million gallons daily.

The board last raised rates in 2002, when annual fees went from $80 to $87.50 per home to help cover increasing capital and operating costs.

Earlier this year, district officials proposed a 20% increase each year for five years. In May, board members lowered that to 15% a year out of concern for the impact on customers and because of lower borrowing rates.

"If we do more financing and spread the cost out over time, we don't need to raise rates nearly as much," said board member Brian Brady, a representative from the Irvine Ranch Water District.

If the five-year rate plan doesn't pass, Brady said, he'd back a compromise -- a 15% increase for one year. Then directors could look for other ways to save money and evaluate whether further hikes are needed.

"One way or another, we are going to have to make these investments," Brady said. "We are wrestling with the most equitable way to do this."

Many board members agree that a rate hike is needed soon to provide for a growing population and to overhaul or replace parts of the system.

The district has pump stations in Newport Beach dating to 1938 and main sewer lines that are more than 50 years old, such as the "magnolia trunk," which serves Garden Grove, Huntington Beach, Stanton, Anaheim and Westminster.

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