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Record number of protests fails to stop water rate increase in Rancho Santa Fe and Solana Beach

The Santa Fe Irrigation District raised rates for the first time since 2013 following a public hearing on Thursday, May 19, over the objections of two district board members and about 20 percent of the district’s customers.

In order to block the rate plan — which authorizes the board to raise rates an average of 9 percent over each of the next three years — 3,253 of the district’s 6,504 customers would have had to file written protests with the district by the close of Thursday’s public hearing.

District general manager Michael Bardin reported that as of Thursday morning, the district had received 1,324 written protests. While that number represented a record — only 44 written protests were received when a similar rate hearing was held in 2010 — opponents fell short of the 50-percent-plus-one threshold needed to prevent the rate increase.

Based on the board’s vote, customers will see their bills rise collectively by 9 percent on June 1. However, due to the way the rate increase was structured, the specific increase seen by customers will vary by their classification, the amount of water they use and the size of their water meter. The board will have to take separate votes to enact the additional increases in subsequent years.

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Board members Michael Hogan, Augie Daddi and Alan Smerican voted in favor of the rate increase, while board members Greg Gruzdowich and Marlene King voted against the measure.

“The record number of protests is the community saying ‘let’s stop the train,’” said Gruzdowich.

District officials said the rate increase is needed due to increased costs for buying and treating water, maintaining the district’s pipes and pumping stations, building its reserves and expanding its portfolio of alternative water sources. Also, they argued, they have cut costs in recent years, while at the same time keeping rates at 2013 levels.

But Gruzdowich and King, as well as residents who spoke at the hearing, said the rate plan is flawed and should be revised.

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King said the plan relies too heavily on cheaper, local water from Lake Hodges, which has been in short supply in recent years due to the drought. And Gruzdowich said larger water users in Rancho Santa Fe are in effect subsidizing customers who use less water, many of whom live on smaller parcels in Solana Beach, in the western portion of the water district.

The five board members are elected by district. King and Gruzdowich represent Rancho Santa Fe and Fairbanks Ranch, while Hogan, Daddi and Smerican represent Solana Beach.

Due to a restructuring of how the district calculates its rates, some customers will see their bills go up by more than 9 percent, while others will actually see their bills go down.

For example, a family that has a 3/4-inch meter and uses 150 units of water over two months will see its bi-monthly bill increase to $680.03 from the current $617.37. The average district household uses 120 units of water over two months.

In contrast, a household that uses 50 units of water, and also has a 3/4-inch meter, will see its bi-monthly bill decrease to $222.65, from the current $233.37.

About 30 people attended Thursday’s public hearing. Most of those who addressed the board opposed the rate plan.

“This rate study doesn’t fit our community. I think you are basing all this on a terribly flawed rate study. Throw it away. Start over,” said Timothy Hamilton.

Ole Prahm said it is unfair for rates to be going down for those who use less water, while they go up for customers in Rancho Santa Fe, where multi-acre properties are the norm.

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“The large consumer of water is deemed to be a villain,” said Rick Sapp, who noted that if he cuts his usage, the district will lose revenue, triggering more rate increases in the future. “All I do by cutting is increase my cost over time.”

While the district has not raised rates since 2013, rates did go up every year for about a decade previously. According to figures provided by the district, rates were increased a total of 102.7 percent between 2004 and 2013. The largest one-year increase, 25 percent, came in 2008.


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