Updated, May 4: Some La Hondans will see a more than 50 percent increase in their water bill in the next few years after a rate hike to County Service Area 7 was approved at Tuesday's San Mateo County Board of Supervisors meeting.
County-run CSA 7, which provides water for around 70 La Honda residents, has been operating in the red, according to Public Works Director Jim Porter, who presented the rate increases at a March 9 and at the May 4 board meeting.
Porter said because of its geography and old infrastructure, CSA 7 is expensive to operate and maintain. It relies on water from Alpine Creek, which is vulnerable to silt conditions during storms and on a water treatment plant that’s more than 25 years old and uses century-old pipes in remote areas. It’s currently operating at around an $8,000 annual deficit. But making up the difference means increasing locals’ water rates significantly.
The county is now on track to increase rates by 45 percent starting in September of this year, followed by a 3 percent increase in each of the next four years. Porter said the rates would be the highest in the area, at nearly $300 per month on average. The costs of some one-time fees, like account set-up and late payment fees, would also increase.
Porter said the increased costs are front loaded to balance the budget in the near term and to cushion CSA 7’s reserves, which have been depleted to around $47,000.
“It’s about as low of a fund balance as we felt comfortable,” Porter said.
In a La Honda community email group and at the hearing on Tuesday, some residents said they’re worried about the effect of rising rates. By Tuesday, Porter had received 28 protest letters out of 69 ratepayers, not enough for a majority protest that would have stopped the rate increase. During public comment, some La Honda residents urged the county to explore further grant opportunities and consider the effect of a steep rate hike on low-income La Hondans.
La Honda resident Heather McAvoy, who is also member of a community board that advises the county on CSA 7, said she was disappointed that contrary to the group’s advice, the rate increases weren’t spread out more evenly and that the county did not hold any community meetings, leaving the local committee members to field questions and misinformation about the rate hikes.
“While I understand the increases, I don't think (the Department of Public Works) took our advice,” McAvoy said.
The new rate increases would fund regular operations and maintenance of the water system and pay back a $43,000 loan to the county, but would not cover much-needed capital improvements in response to a recommendation from the system’s community advisory committee, Porter said. The last rate increase was in 2013.
CSA 7 plans to tap into $3.6 million in Measure K funds to move on critical needs like a generator to make the system hardened against power outages. But Porter said that money won’t be enough to complete all the needed improvements, like relocating the remote pipes to more accessible locations and drilling for a backup raw water source.
Without the rate increase, the Department of Public Works would have to defer capital improvements even longer, Deputy Director of Engineering and Resource Protection Ann Stillman wrote in an email to the Review.
All in all, Porter projects that $6.8 million is needed to get the entire system up to date — costs the new rate increases wouldn’t cover. He said the county has been applying for grants, typically set aside for low-income areas, to cover project costs but has been unsuccessful so far.
“Unfortunately, CSA 7 does not qualify as a disadvantaged community,” Porter said.
The only way to cut costs significantly, County Supervisor Don Horsley said on Tuesday, would be if locals took over the water system themselves on a volunteer basis or if individuals reduce their household usage.
“We have tried to consolidate the water systems on the Coastside but it is impossible,” Horsley said. “They are small systems with lots of liabilities.”