City government

Council approves water bill subsidy program on heels of rate hike

By From page A1 | March 21, 2013

After locking in five years of water rate increases, the City Council took very little time Tuesday to shift its attention to helping those who will have the hardest time covering that added cost of living in Davis.

The council adopted rates that will triple the average water bill by 2018 to pay for the $113 million Woodland-Davis surface water project. The first of those increases will take effect May 1.

The council unanimously approved a trio of motions Tuesday aimed to ease that burden for some, starting with the approval of a Lifeline Water Utility Rate Assistance Program that will award $10 per month to at least 250 qualified low-income homeowners in town for their water bills.

Funded with revenue generated by delinquent water accounts, the $33,600 lifeline program will accommodate less than one-quarter of the 1,120 families in Davis who would qualify for the program. Qualifications will be based on the PG&E CARE (California Alternate Rates for Energy) program that affords approved residents discounts on energy bills.

A family of four earning less than $46,100 annually will qualify for the program, while a household with eight or more residents with a total income less than $77,780 per year also will qualify.

But the council was concerned that some of the most needy in town may miss out on the subsidy program with so few slots available, so members directed staff to alert them once 75 percent of the 250 available applications had been approved so they could decide how to pick additional families for the program, rather than the lottery system that city staff had proposed.

Councilman Brett Lee also wants to make sure the city remains aware of the amount awarded through the subsidy to ensure that the program has a meaningful impact for residents while rates continue to escalate.

“The $10 out of the gate toward a $35 bill is a meaningful amount, I think; $10 toward an $80 bill is less meaningful,” Lee said. “I hope we would find ways where that $10 would increase in size as the average homeowner’s bill increases.”

Staff hopes to have the program in place by the time the first rate increases go live in May.

Before they put their stamp of approval on the lifeline program Tuesday, council members also wanted clarification as to why the program didn’t extend to renters or other types of residents living in multi-family homes.

According to Herb Niederberger, the city’s general manager of development, utilities and operations, while 1,120 homeowners qualify for the lifeline program under the CARE guidelines, when renters are added to the mix more than 5,500 residents in Davis qualify.

In addition to diluting the pool of people who would be able to receive the benefit, Niederberger added, guaranteeing that landlords, or the individuals who pay the water bills, would pass along the benefit would be “problematic.”

“Somehow entering into an arrangement or agreement with the landlord that they would agree to pass on the rate reduction to their tenants … we had no way to make that assurance,” Niederberger said.

City Attorney Harriet Steiner later explained that if it is the council’s desire, perhaps a more appropriate avenue to take would be a more general rental assistance program.

“There is not necessarily a one-to-one correlation, especially in the multi-family contracts, of what the rents are versus what the rates may be,” Steiner said.

Mayor Pro Tem Dan Wolk made the second rate-minded motion Tuesday — it passed unanimously — to have staff investigate subsidy programs that would assist renters and residents in other multi-family residences with their water costs.

The third unanimously approved motion by the council Tuesday took ratepayer assistance a step further.

Councilman Lucas Frerichs suggested that the city print check boxes on all utility bills where residents could choose to donate extra cash to the city to be used for low-income subsidies.

“Why don’t we set up a ratepayers assistance program … where those that can and are willing, round up their bill by five bucks or whatever (the number),” Frerichs said.

The council approved this idea with the caveat that it would be only a “tool in the tool kit” for the city to use to help residents pay for their water bills. Meanwhile, staff was asked to explore other ways in the “medium term” in which the city could lend a hand to homeowners.

— Reach Tom Sakash at [email protected] or 530-747-8057. Follow him on Twitter at @TomSakash

Tom Sakash

Tom Sakash covers the city beat for The Davis Enterprise. Reach him at [email protected], (530) 747-8057 or @TomSakash.
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