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Ratepayers in O.C. Debate Sewer Fees

Doubling charges will fund improvements, backers say. Opponents say it's too much.

June 26, 2003|Dan Weikel | Times Staff Writer

In a hearing room filled to capacity, customers of Orange County's largest sewer agency Wednesday both praised and criticized a proposal to double their rates over the next five years to help finance a $2.36-billion capital-improvement program.

Many of the 70 people who turned out to testify at the Orange County Sanitation District board meeting were indignant about the dramatic increase and told agency officials the wish list of capital expenditures should be reevaluated and scaled back.

"Our vehicle license fees have just tripled," said Paul Durazo of Westminster, who said he has been unemployed for 11 months. "It seems like everyone is screaming for more money.... Why do we keep getting saddled with the bills?"

Other residents, however, argued that the fee increase is justified to help rebuild the district's aging facilities, improve water treatment and expand the sewer system to accommodate population growth.

"This is one of the best-run sanitation districts around," said Tom England of Garden Grove. "If people don't want to pay, let them try to get rid of their sewage themselves."

The district has proposed doubling annual fees from $87.50 to $175 per single-family home, or 15% per year for five years -- scaled back from a 20% increase, partly out of concern for ratepayers.

Average rates for business that don't need discharge permits would increase by at least $142 a year, district figures show. Rate hikes would average $1,938 or more per year for 500 large users with waste-water permits, such as hospitals, universities, manufacturing plants and major commercial operations.

If the rates are passed, the district's 500,000 customers can expect them to be included in December's property tax bill. The sanitation board was still listening to public testimony late Wednesday as a prelude to an expected vote on the fee hikes.

District officials say the rate increase willadd plant capacity and provide service for at least 400,000 additional people by 2020.

The proposed expenditures include about $1.1 billion to refurbish and upgrade treatment facilities, $580 million for new sewers, $422 million for secondary treatment, $80 million for conservation programs and $180 million to replenish ground-water supplies that keep seawater out of aquifers.

"This isn't a matter of price. It is a matter of service. It is a matter of efficiency," said Gary Streed, the district's chief financial officer. "This will take care of today's needs and give some thought to the needs of those who come after us."

Though rates could double, the proposed annual fees for single-family dwellings will remain below the national average of $244 and the California average of $242, according to surveys of hundreds of sanitation districts. Around the state, the typical sewer fees in large metropolitan areas are $328 a year in Los Angeles, $585 in San Diego and $588 in San Francisco.

The Orange County Sanitation 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 by 2020. Present capacity is about 276 million gallons daily.

As the hearing wore on Wednesday night, other members of the public called for more moderate increases, perhaps 15% next year.

Any further hikes, they said, could be reconsidered every year thereafter.

Treatment "has been a great bargain so far," said Doug Korthof, a member of the Ocean Outfall Group, a local environmental organization. "But we are going to have to pay these costs. They are basic costs. Perhaps we can decrease the rate increases in the future."

Many of those who testified were retirees or people living on fixed incomes who said the proposed rate increase would hurt them financially. They also accused district officials of handing themselves generous wage and benefit packages at the expense of the ratepayer.

"Are you going to raise your standard of living again," one speaker asked the 25-member board, "while the ratepayers' standard of living continues to go down?"

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