By Brian Park
San Juan Capistrano residents and business owners will see a 5 percent increase in their water bills each of the next five years.
The City Council on Tuesday voted 3-2 to approve the increases, despite protests from a group of residents. Councilmen Roy Byrnes and Derek Reeve, who have long been critical of the city’s groundwater recovery plant, voted in opposition.
The increases go into effect July 1. Although around 61 percent of the city’s ratepayers will see an increase of up to $5, customers will be allowed to use more water at the lowest tier, and those in the highest two tiers will also be charged far less than under the previous model.
About 20 percent of the city’s ratepayers will see no impact and 9 percent will see a $5 to $10 increase, according to the city. Sewer rates will not be increased until the fifth year, starting July 2018.
The new four-tiered rate structure was developed over several months and in meetings with the council, Utilities Commission and the city’s rate consultant, Raftelis Financial.
Neither Byrnes nor Reeve participated in a rate survey by Raftelis to determine the scope and aim of the study. Reeve issued a “call to action” last month, asking residents to send in written protests against the increases. Had the city received protests from half plus one of its ratepayers, the council would not have been allowed to raise rates, Reeve argued.
Before the council’s vote, protest forms were counted under the supervision of two representatives from the League of Women Voters, who were asked by the city to ensure it was done properly. The city only received 349 letters, well short of the 5,666 needed.
The city’s water rates and groundwater recovery plant have been a controversial topic for the past two years.
Last August, the city’s current rate structure was declared illegal by an Orange County Superior Court judge in a lawsuit brought against the city in 2012 by the Capistrano Taxpayers Association, a local advocacy group. The city appealed the ruling and continued to charge customers based on the contested model.
Last month, in guest opinion columns published in The Dispatch, Byrnes and Reeve criticized the rate study and the city’s continued funding of the water plant, respectively. They echoed those sentiments during the meeting.
“I truly believe that the five members of this council honestly believe that they do not want to raise rates if they don’t have to,” Reeve said. “I was skeptical about the groundwater recovery plant, but I was open to learning more about it and understanding it and considering it … But after a year, I concluded that the city shouldn’t be in the water business.”
The increases were necessary, according to city staff and the council majority, because of expected bumps in the price of imported water by the Metropolitan Water District, which supplies most of south Orange County. San Juan Capistrano imports some of its water but also relies on its groundwater recovery plant.
All but two of the residents who spoke protested against the increases.
“As elected officials it is your duty to control the cost of the city and make sure the burden of taxation is minimized,” said John Perry, a CTA board member. “The current City Council majority has failed miserably to keep city costs in line with the average rate of inflation, and when you seek reelection, the public will take your vote tonight in consideration.”
Resident Geoffrey Vonmuff said although he has taken several measures to lower his water consumption—including replacing his toilets and stripping out his sod—water is the costliest of his utility bills.
“I don’t think you can squeeze another gallon out of me,” Vonmuff said.
Dick Hartl, chairman of the Utilities Commission, which voted unanimously to approve the rates, spoke in favor of the rate increases and the plant.
“I know some of the commissioners in San Clemente who would love to have a groundwater recovery plant,” Hartl said. “If we have an earthquake, we can supply 50 percent of our own water. Those cities don’t have any backup.”
The city of San Clemente, which imports about 90 percent of its water, also raised their rates Tuesday by 6 percent.
Reeve argued that although using the plant as a backup made sense, its intended use as the city’s primary source of water was concerning given its operating expenses and low production.
Councilman Larry Kramer criticized Byrnes and Reeve, saying that promising not to raise rates sounded great during an election season.
“When I was running for City Council, I don’t think I said words like that. But we’re not running for City Council. We’re operating a city and operating a plant,” Kramer said. “Some people like to play politics all the time … Derek believes in slogans. I believe in governing.”
Byrnes objected to Kramer’s comments. Allevato accepted his point of order but added that he had been a victim of Byrnes’ “ad hominem” attacks in the past.
Kramer, as well as Reeve and Councilman John Taylor, are up for reelection this year. Kramer and Taylor intend to run but Reeve has yet to announce his decision.