ATWATER — The City Council took another step toward increasing water rates during a special meeting Thursday night.
The council opened a public hearing and unanimously authorized City Clerk Jeanna Del Real to tally protests from property owners. The result will be reported during a meeting Monday and the City Council will have the option of adopting a resolution to set the rates.
As part of the Proposition 218 process, notices were sent to property owners, who had the option of protesting the increases. If more than 50 percent protested, the rate hike will be rejected.
Four residents spoke during Thursday's meeting. Some argued that the increase is too much.
Brunilda Caesar, who lives on Wedgewood Lane, suggested the council encourage residents to cut down on water usage to avert rate increases.
Another resident, a first-time home buyer, said the increases will be a big hit for some families. "I feel for the people that have large families," she said. "I'm really against it 100 percent."
If the water rate hikes go through, it would be the first time they've been increased in two decades.
Typical residential users pay $15.65 a month for water, while metered customers using 100,000 gallons a month pay $53.15.
As proposed, rates for typical users will be increased by 40 percent in February. Additional increases of 15 percent each would continue through 2017. In comparison with cities in neighboring counties, the change will bring Atwater to the middle of the pack in terms of water rates.
Councilman Gary Frago said he thinks the 40 percent increase for the first year is too high.
"You may show us at the Dec. 10 meeting, but you're asking us to make a decision tonight on these water rates, and you haven't shown us why that's the increase," he said to staff. "You haven't shown anything that says why we need to increase 40 percent the first year."
Various water rate increase models were created by a consultant and presented to the council during an October meeting. With Frago absent, the council voted 4-0 for the model that increases rates 150 percent for typical users over the next five years.
After Thursday night's meeting, Dave Church, Atwater's public works director, said the increases are necessary to adequately operate the city's water system.
"Our water system is very important," Church said. "It's probably the most important thing we have in the city as far as health and safety goes. There's nothing more important than safe drinking water."
With a tight budget, Church said, the city hasn't done a good job maintaining its water system recently, but the rate increases will allow for the regular maintenance the city hasn't been able to do.
The rate increases also will allow the city to fund capital improvement proj- ects as they're needed, he said.
Monday's regular City Council meeting starts at 6 p.m. in the council chamber at 750 Bellevue Road in Atwater.
Reporter Mike North can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or firstname.lastname@example.org.