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Plan to Double O.C.'s Sewer Fees Put on Hold

Sanitation district shelves the issue till July after the five-year series of hikes fails to pass. A 15% increase is also rejected.

June 27, 2003|Dan Weikel | Times Staff Writer

Unable to agree after almost six hours of public testimony and debate, operators of Orange County's largest sewer system early Thursday postponed deciding whether to increase rates for hundreds of thousands of homes, businesses and institutions.

Before a seesaw discussion ended at 12:40 a.m., the Orange County Sanitation District Board of Directors could not muster the two-thirds majority needed to double rates over five years, nor pass a compromise motion that would have boosted fees 15%.

The 25-member board decided to revisit the proposed rate increases July 2, when the public hearing on the issue will be reopened.

"It was quite an evening," said board member and Irvine Councilwoman Beth Krom, who supports the five-year package of increases. "We are going back to the square-one position. I am not sure exactly what recommendations will come forward. Anything can be considered."

About 200 people turned out Wednesday night at the district's Fountain Valley headquarters. They crowded into two hearing rooms or gathered around speakers outside the building's entrance to listen to dozens of speakers.

The vast majority decried the rate hikes, saying they would hurt retirees, wage earners and others with fixed incomes. Some urged the district to scale back its proposed $2.36-billion capital improvement program or dip into $387 million in reserves. That money is set aside for natural disasters, revenue shortages, some capital expenditures and to protect the district's credit rating.

About 10 speakers supported some kind of rate increase, which sanitation district officials say is needed to overhaul the district's aging facilities, move to full secondary treatment of sewage and add sewer lines and capacity for projected population growth.

The district has proposed doubling annual fees from $87.50 to $175 per single-family home, or 15% per year for five years. Average rates for business that don't need discharge permits would increase by at least $142 a year, district figures show. Rate increases 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 fee increases are passed, about 500,000 customers can expect to see the first one on their December property tax bill.

The district serves about 2.4 million people and 22 cities in northern and central Orange County.

The board voted 14 to 9 to raise rates 15% every year for five years, three votes short of the 17 required for passage. Two board members did not vote.

A compromise offered by Brian Brady, a board member and representative of the Irvine Ranch Water District, also failed. Only five members voted for his proposed rate increase of 15% this year, with further increases to be considered on a year-to-year basis.

"Everyone was frustrated by the votes from both sides," Brady said. "All of this can be brought up again. It is my feeling that the votes are not there for the five-year package. My substitute motion would have taken care of things. It would have given staff everything they needed for the first year."

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