DWP workers drill in search of a broken water main in Sherman Oaks earlier… (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)
After months of stumping for rate increases, the head of Los Angeles' massive power and water agency asked the utility's board to approve a first round of hikes on Tuesday.
The increases in water rates, which were unanimously approved, would add about $5 a month to the average residential user's bill. The hikes are much less than the increases proposed earlier this year by Ron Nichols, general manager of the Department of Water and Power.
Nichols has agreed to put the bulk of those hikes on hold until the City Council names a ratepayer advocate to independently scrutinize rates.
The council must ultimately approve any rates changes, and several members have said they will not vote for increases until the advocate is in place.
But many people have complained about the time it is taking the council to fill the position, which was created in March when voters passed a city charter amendment to establish an Office of Public Accountability at the DWP.
The amendment vote followed a contentious battle between the council and the utility in 2010 in which the DWP threatened to withhold a $73.5-million transfer to the city's general fund if the council didn't approve electricity rate hikes.
A spokesman for council President Eric Garcetti said he is hopeful that the advocate will be in place by January, when the emergency water rate increase proposed by Nichols would come before the council.
On Tuesday, Nichols said the rate hike is necessary because the utility needs to pay for improvements to meet federal water quality requirements. The improvements include covering several reservoirs and updating the DWP's water disinfecting system to use different chemicals.
Nichols noted that water rates have actually declined over the last year, because the utility has had to purchase less water in part due to last year's wet winter. While the average residential customer paid $44.47 a month last fiscal year, the average bill in 2011-12 is $40.30. With the new rates in place, the average bill would be $45.91.
At the board meeting, several people spoke in favor of the emergency water rate increases. One of them was Anh Nguyen of the Central City Assn., a business group that fought last year's rate hikes.
"We understand that the DWP has no choice but to meet its legal obligations," Nguyen said. "Nobody's excited about this, but it's necessary in our opinion."
Nguyen said her organization supports the increase as long as it is approved by the ratepayer advocate and is in line with the recommendations made by an outside consultant hired by the city. Last week, the council voted to spend $350,000 on an outside firm to study the need for the emergency water rate hike.
Jack Humphreville, a member of a neighborhood council, said he also supports the proposal and wishes the council would get busy in naming a ratepayer advocate. "I think the council and the mayor have been grossly negligent in the way they've approached this," he said.