Water Billing Based on “Assumptions” is a Formula for Higher Fees

By Ian Smith 

A recent staff report to our Utilities Commission revealed over 1800 calls from residents to staffers in just one month. A look at your water bill might explain why. Our water billing system is confusing. More so when errors are made, as I recently discovered.

Each monthly water billing period falls into one of four billing “cycles” or areas, within our city. I live in “Cycle 1” which consists of an area east of the I-5, south of Ortega. My bill arrived on 7/16 for the period from 5/31 - 7/06 ; a 37-day billing cycle. It took the city 10 days to deliver this bill. The bill stated payment was due on or before 8/02 (in just 16 days) or a penalty would be applied!

I then discovered my SEWER SERVICE CHARGE had been increased on 06/01. A “Sewer Service” automatic increase had been approved by the previous city council majority starting on July 1, for the next four years. But my calculations revealed that in fact the increase had been applied to the entire billing period in error (not just from July 1st on).

When I met with city staff, I learned that everyone in “Cycle 1” (some 3,000+ residents) was likely overcharged for sewer service. If you live in “Cycle 1” and have not received a credit for this period, you may contact City Hall to have your bill credited.

To err is human, but there’s no excuse for the bewildering “formula” city staff has devised to determine the water rate structure. The following explanation appeared in the 8/23/11 report to the Utilities Commission; “The city uses a “WATER BASED BUDGET” rate structure which relies on allocations of water to customers based on customer specific characteristics and conservative resource standards. Implicit in the rate structure is an assumption of how much water each customer is expected to require for a specific month based on a fixed indoor allocation and variable outdoor allocation (based on lot and house size and the weather).

This water allocation affects our rates, which are billed in “tiers”. There are four rate tiers, with a certain amount of water allocated in each tier. If we exceed our allocated base, we are bumped up into the next tier, with each tier being exponentially higher than the previous. It’s no wonder our water bills are so steep!

How did we get into this mess? I can’t help but believe that the council having hired a $324K City Manager with no previous experience contributed. Although now departed, he was then publicly lauded by former council member Mark Nielsen as deserving of the “double salary” due to his background in water utilities. Maybe that’s one of the reasons Nielsen was voted out. We can only hope he does not get elected again; we can’t afford his Chicago-style politics!

Let’s encourage the council to hire sensible staff to generate bills based solely on water gallons used and get rid of allocations based on “assumptions”, “customer specific characteristics” and “weather” forecasts.

One council member admitted difficulty understanding their bill. If you agree, please write to the city council at cityclerk@sanjuancapistrano.org to offer your opinion. Better still, attend a Council Meeting. Water allocations are not needed; let the market set the demand and price; stop forcing us to use magnifying glasses and calculators to figure out what should be a straightforward fee for service.

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