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Sewer costs under assault

Patrick McCartney

Customers of the South Tahoe Public Utility District have mounted an assault on the district’s use of sewer units as the basis for its service rates.

Residential customers and commercial property owners questioned the fairness of the district’s pricing policies at a workshop Thursday called by the district to review its ordinance history.

During a lively discussion, some residential customers suggested putting an end to the tiered rate system that charges customers $85 more a year for every bathroom in excess of two. Commercial property owners called for the district to charge by water usage or some other measure of actual discharge.



Since 1964, the district has based its sewer rates on the number of units, considered to be a rough measure of the customer’s potential discharge. For each unit, a customer pays $84.96 annually after the $2,000 connection fee.

The district serves 16,634 customers and collects fees on 79,235 sewer units a year. The number of units assigned to customers ranges from a little more than three for the typical single-family home to 10 or more for multi-family homes, motels, commercial properties and schools.



One of the sore points in the discussion was the difference in rates between single family homes with the standard three units and those charged for four or more. While the district charges about 2,000 of the 14,598 residences with higher rates, the number of homes that should be assigned higher fees is probably twice that, said Diane Noble, the district’s customer service manager, because many property owners rig additional sewer hookups without notifying the district.

The district has adjusted rates when it has learned about additional bathrooms. This policy rankles some homeowners and real estate agents whom the district has questioned to determine a the actual number of bathrooms in a residence.

When the district discovers a bootleg bathroom, it charges the customer a $2,000 connection fee, three years of back service charges, a 10-percent penalty and an administrative fee that adds up to $2,780. If the owner can demonstrate that the unreported connection existed before they bought the residence, the district waives the connection fee and penalties, and only charges for past service.

Doug Rosner protested the district’s efforts to track down bootleg bathrooms, and said it could save staff time by simply instituting a flat rate for residential customers.

“It seems to me that some of the conflict might be eliminated by some type of residential flat rate,” Rosner said.

Spreading the cost of residential service equally would raise the annual fees charged to 85 percent of the district’s customers 6 percent, from $255 to $269, Noble said.

A few commercial property owners said they would prefer to be charged by the amount of water used on their premises, rather than by the sewer units they own. Many property owners continue to hold unused sewer units that could be used by new businesses, but must pay the annual rates whether they are used or not.

Part of the reason they continue to pay is because the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency and other regulatory agencies for many years used sewer units to regulate growth based on the district’s treatment capacity.

“We had a paper ceiling for the treatment plant that the TRPA and other agencies had to sign off on,” Noble said. “But sewer units became an issue where they didn’t represent actual flows.”

Although Noble told the audience that the district has adequate capacity to accommodate growth until at least 2006, some do not believe it. For years, owning sewer units was the only guarantee that a new connection would be provided, said Jim Beattie, who owns office buildings and Tamarack Realty.

He said he would hang on to his eight extra units for a rainy day.

“I don’t know what the rules will be tomorrow,” Beattie said.


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