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City will soon be handed amended lawsuit about water, and now wastewater, rates

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From page A1 | March 31, 2013 |

The group that filed suit against the city of Davis in late January over its water rate billing systems and its failure to pay for the water it uses has beefed up its charges this week, piling on allegations with an amended lawsuit about the way the city handles its wastewater services.

On Friday, the Yolo Ratepayers for Affordable Public Utility Services filed an amended complaint with Yolo Superior Court claiming that, in addition to the original suit, the city unfairly charges ratepayers for wastewater services while also, again, failing to pay for the wastewater services it consumes at city facilities.

YRAPUS is represented by Davis resident and former City Council member Michael Harrington. John R. Munn, the former president of the Yolo Taxpayers Association is also listed as a plaintiff.

“We’re going after them for the wastewater rates because they treat themselves like they do water,” Harrington said Friday. “The rates we think are illegal and in fact the city knows it.”

Harrington and company believe that the wastewater rates are illegal because monthly fees are based on potable water consumption, as opposed to the amount of water that actually enters the city’s wastewater system.

Wastewater rates in Davis are calculated by how much water is consumed during the winter months — November through February — in order to reflect the period of time when the least amount of irrigation takes place.

But because some residents continue watering during the wintertime, the complaint says, those still irrigating are billed for more than they actually use of the wastewater system. Any amount of water irrigated — or not used “indoors” — is still charged on utility bills.

“A landowner with a large lot with outdoor plants needing substantial irrigation in the winter (is) forced to pay unreasonably high wastewater charges to subsidize other landowners with no irrigation or lower irrigation needs,” the complaint states.

To further illustrate the problem, the suit describes a situation in which El Macero successfully protested their wastewater rates because the neighborhood was being charged for substantially more than the average ratepayer, despite utilizing similar amounts of indoor water.

A December report by the city’s rate consultant Bartle Wells Associates confirmed the discrepancy.

“The higher water use by El Macero residents in the winter months is used for irrigation purposes and therefore does not enter to the collection system for treatment, but either infiltrates into soil, runs off or evaporates,” the report says.

The lawsuit tacks on to the other charges that because of the successful wastewater rate challenge, El Macero has been paying $100,000 less than it should be for wastewater services and that the city has not forced Yolo County, which collects wastewater payments from El Macero, to make up the difference over the past five years.

City Manager Steve Pinkerton declined to comment on the updated lawsuit, or on any allegations therein, as the city has not yet been served or had opportunity to review the charges. The Enterprise was also unsuccessful in reaching City Attorney Harriet Steiner on the matter.

Harrington said Saturday that he will serve the city with the amended suit this week.

Meanwhile, the suit still maintains that it is illegal for the city to not pay for the water it uses, again pointing to a case from 2010 where the city of Sacramento was successfully sued for only paying for 15 percent of the water it used. Sacramento was forced to meter all of its water consumption and begin billing itself like a normal ratepayer.

When YRAPUS first filed their complaint against the city in late January, city officials admitted to not paying for the water it consumed, but defended themselves by explaining that they offset their water costs by forgiving the water division for costs they technically owe to the city’s general fund.

Additionally, officials say that there has been an ongoing effort to meter all city facilities in order to begin billing itself properly for water in the future.

According to Interim Public Works Director Bob Clarke, the city will budget for all of its indoor and outdoor water use in the FY 2013-14 budget. Though, Clarke also has said that the effort to meter all public facilities has slowed due to recent staff reductions.

“The majority of meters have been addressed, but there are still some of the larger, more labor intensive connections still to be done,” Clarke said in an email in February.

The lawsuit reiterates the contention that the city’s current rate structure, the structure the council approved to be implemented starting on May 1 and the consumption-based fixed rate structure that will go into effect Jan. 1, 2015 are all unconstitutional under Proposition 218.

Water rates in Davis, as approved by the City Council on March 19, are set to rise on May 1, and thereafter for the next five years so the city can raise sufficient revenue to pay off its $113 million share of the $245 million Woodland-Davis Clean Water Agency surface water project. Water bills are expected to triple on average by 2018.

The water project, which was approved by Davis voters on March 5, will pump water from the Sacramento River, treat it and pipe it to Davis and Woodland, largely replacing each city’s dependence on ground well drinking water supplies.

— Reach Tom Sakash at tsakash@davisenterprise.net or 530-747-8057. Follow him on Twitter at @TomSakash

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Tom Sakash

Tom Sakash covers the city beat for The Davis Enterprise. Reach him at tsakash@davisenterprise.net, (530) 747-8057 or @TomSakash.
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