The embattled Atwater City Council took an important step this week in trying to come to grips with its budget disaster by moving ahead with a plan to try to significantly increase water rates.
The city has a general fund deficit of more than $3 million, plus a $1.5 million negative balance in its combined water funds. If the rate hikes go through, it would be the first time water rates have been increased since 1992.
This is just another in a series of actions the council will face in the coming weeks because of the budget crisis, including laying off as much as a third of the city's work force and possibly even declaring bankruptcy -- bad options made worse by deferred action, poor judgment and a lack of leadership.
And now everyone is going to have to ante up. The politicians, the administration, the employees and, yes, even the residents.
Folks in Atwater are going to have to start paying more for the services they receive. Going a decade or two without fee increases might be easy on the pocketbook in the short term, especially in such ugly economic times, but eventually the bill comes due -- and that time is now.
For Atwater residents, the bill for water could cost 150 percent more per month over five years. While that might seem like a lot, it's important to point out that Atwater residents have been paying some of the lowest water rates in California.
The $15.65 flat rate that a typical Atwater household pays each month is far below the rates of neighboring communities, as is the $28.15 Atwater households with metered water pay for using 50,000 gallons per month, according to the city's own figures.
According to a 2011 statewide survey by Raftelis Financial Consultants, the firm assisting Atwater on its water rate structure, the price of water in California ranges from $11 a month in Twentynine Palms Water District to $180 per month in the city of San Bruno. That survey shows Modesto's average bill as $34.20 per month, Merced's as $70.28 and Dinuba's as $42.98.
Even with the 150 percent increase, Atwater households' water bills, whether for flat rates ($39.12 per month) or metered rates (about $70.37 for 50,000 gallons) would still be a bargain compared to the rest of the state.
The plan being considered by the city would spread out the increase over five years, with the biggest bump -- 40 percent -- coming in the first year.
Any increases are still months away. Notices must be sent to property owners, who have the option of protesting the increases. If more than 50 percent of them protest, the rate hike would be rejected.
If the process goes as planned, a public hearing on the item would be held in December and the first increase could become effective as early as Feb. 1.
But the city and its residents don't have much choice. The council has to start filling the holes in its budget and the residents are going to have to dig deeper to make that happen.
When it comes to water rates, though, people have been getting by on the cheap for far too long and any new rates won't be as high as most residents pay in other cities in the state.
Atwater residents will still get a good deal on water. Rejecting or fighting a rate increase would only make the budget situation worse and push the city closer to the fiscal abyss.