Council OKs water, wastewater hikes

Jan. 19—Residents questioned the City of Lodi's reasoning for water and wastewater rate hikes during this week's Lodi City Council meeting, citing the amount of reserves held by the city as well as the practice of charging based on the number of bedrooms in a home.

The council on Wednesday unanimously approved raising water rates by 3% and wastewater rates by 4% for 2024, effective July 1, and setting future rate schedules to cap out at 5%, pursuant to Proposition 218.

For example, single-family homes with three-quarter-inch water meters whose usage is very low — or using 5.5 centum cubic feet of water a month — will see rates increase by 74 cents, according to Wednesday's staff report.

A single-family home with a 1-inch meter that uses 68 centum cubic feet of water per month will see rates increase by $8.82, and a duplex that uses 15 centum cubic feet of water a month will see rates increase by $1.14, staff said.

On the wastewater side, customers that use four to 18 centum cubic feet of water per month will see rates increase by $2.01, while those that experience very high wastewater use at 36 centum cubic feet a month will see an increase of $4.33.

For the last several years, the city has ensured that rates do not exceed a 3% increase each year. But due to the recent rise in inflation across the country, staff recommended increasing that cap to 5%.

Public Works Director Charles Swimley said rates will not reach that 5% cap unless inflation skyrockets over the next five years.

As an example, single-family homes currently paying $22.30 a month for water will most likely see bills increase to $25.87 a month by 2028, according to staff.

Resident Linda Reichert questioned why the city was asking customers for more money when it appeared it had more than enough in its reserve fund, according to a report that accompanied Prop 218 notices sent to residents in recent weeks.

"This city report says we had an unrestricted cash balance at the 2022-23 fiscal year of more than $11 million against a $13 million operating budget," she said. "That seems like an awful lot. Then (on another page) the report recommends a reserve of 50% of the annual operating budget. That seems excessive to me, which is why I would not be in favor of this rate increase."

Jeffrey Flaherty is a disabled senior who relies on his Social Security payments to make ends meet. He said while he lives in a two-bedroom house, only one of those rooms is used for sleeping, and questioned why he should be charged a two-bedroom rate.

"I get charged for my water and wastewater for a two bedroom, even though the rates show in my bill how much water I'm using," he said. "If it really was a two-bedroom house, there would be more waste on my bill. So I'm paying for another room, and paying all that extra waste. Whatever is going on here isn't right."

Interim city manager Andrew Keys said the city has collected $11 million in unrestricted funds because it has historically, and will continue to, employ a "pay as you go for capital projects" philosophy.

That means, he said, the city has to have enough money in the bank before it starts any kind of capital project.

He said the city currently has $20 million in capital project funding it needs to collect.

"Costs are going up for all of us, and that's not lost on me, and that's not lost on the city," he said. "Those same pressures are felt by the city. There are things the city has to purchase to provide services, including water and wastewater."

Because water and wastewater increases can only be approved under the purview of Proposition 218, the city must accept protest votes from residents before the council votes.

Some 12,606 letters of protest were needed to quash the increase, based on the city's 25,211 customer accounts.

Only 280 protest letters were received Wednesday night.

Vice Mayor Cameron Bregman told residents that the $11 million in reserves discussed earlier in evening was not sitting stagnant in the city's bank account, but actually being used to make improvements.

"We're building up to a point where we can upgrade our infrastructure," he said. "We could push (the rate increases) down a year or two, but ultimately, the situation isn't going to get better. It's like an oil change to your vehicle. You can postpone it, but you're deteriorating the life of the motor."

Mayor Lisa Craig asked the city manager to investigate how to lower rates for seniors like Flaherty who live on fixed incomes and may have trouble paying bills as rates increase.

"We do have those who are lower income, and we do have elderly who need assistance," she said. "I don't know how we look at these utilities in a comprehensive way to try and address those truly in need."