Residents question water bill hikes | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Residents question water bill hikes

Jeff Munson, Tribune city editor

After a third public hearing Wednesday at Zephyr Cove, more questions were raised over rate hikes of up to 42 percent for some Douglas County water users at the lake.

Skyland, a subdivision near Zephyr Cove, would be hit the hardest. Cave Rock and Uppaway areas would see a 31 percent spike under plans being reviewed by Douglas County leaders, who could make a decision at the May 15 meeting of the County Commission in Stateline.

“No one is opposed to paying their fair share, but there is something wrong with this amount and paying this much,” said Cave Rock resident Mike Traum. “We just want to make sure everything is on the up-and-up. If there were mistakes made or bad deals made in the past, it is not right for us to have to bear the burden.”

General improvement district managers and water district trustees have urged the county to seek grants to help pay for the costs of improvements. However, the county argues that grants won’t be enough to pay for improvements over the long haul, which could amount to about $8 million for the water systems.

Douglas County obtained the water companies more than a decade ago after clean water regulations went into effect and the companies couldn’t pay for the improvements to meet the federal water standards.

Since then, the county has been operating water systems at a loss, costing upwards of $100,000 a year for each water system. The money is drawn from the county’s general fund.

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“The significant issue now is that other water companies in the county are self-sustaining, meaning that the entire cost of operating them has been passed on to the users,” County Commissioner Tim Smith said. “We’re going to have to make the systems pay for themselves.”

Average monthly bills for Cave Rock could jump from $77 a month to $101 under the plan developed by a consulting firm hired by the county, while nearby Uppaway water rates would jump from $86 to $101. For Skyland homeowners, water rates could jump from $51 to $92 a month.

An option would be to combine the water systems, where Cave Rock, Uppaway and Skyland would pay a flat rate of $92 a month.

In the past, federal and state grants have accounted for 60 percent of the upgrades to the water systems, with Douglas County footing the rest of the bill, said County Engineer Carl Ruschmeyer.

But there is no certainty that the grant money which exists today will be available down the road, so alternate plans are needed by the county to get the nearly 500 homes in the three subdivisions on water meters by 2009.

If that happens, water rates could double what is already being proposed.

John McCall, trustee of the Lakeridge General improvement District, which is part of the Cave Rock water system, said it would be ridiculous for customers to have to pay that much for their monthly water bills.

“The bottom line is we can’t afford $200 a month,” he said. “A lot of us moved here before we had million dollar homes, and there are people here who are on fixed incomes.”

In January, McCall presented commissioners with a list of what 10 water systems in the Tahoe basin charge their customers. The most expensive is $45 and the least expensive is $18 a month, McCall said.

The county will continue to look for ways to help finance upgrades through public grants, Smith said, but sooner or later, the county will have to make some tough decisions. Right now, more than 30 percent of the water bills people are now paying goes to paying off old debts.

Smith said he will recommend that the board ease into the rate hikes the first year, and make the jump to the rates the following year.

Either way, it has to be done, Smith said. “These water system have to become self sufficent.”

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