Atwater votes 3-2 to raise water rate

New council member sworn in, votes on critical issue

mnorth@mercedsunstar.comDecember 11, 2012 

— Shortly after taking the oath of office, new Councilman Larry Bergman was faced with one of the city's most pressing issues -- its water rates.

One of Bergman's first actions as a council member was voting "yes" on a resolution to raise water rates. Supporters say the move, which passed on a 3-2 vote, is necessary to help fix the city's finances and provide adequate services.

There were no comments from the public about the item, but there was some applause once it passed.

Councilman Jeff Rivero and Mayor Pro Tem Joe Rivero both voted against the action.

While Joe Rivero had questions and concerns about costs to the fund, Jeff Rivero said he thinks the increase is higher than what the city needs.

"I understand that the rates haven't been raised in 21 years and agree that an increase is warranted, but after full review, I believe that this increase is larger than should be necessary," he said before voting.

Because the city hasn't raised water rates in two decades, customers are being charged less than the cost of providing the service, according to staff documents.

A recent report by a financial consultant showed the water fund has been struggling and had a negative balance of about $1.1 million at the end of the 2011-12 fiscal year.

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 put Atwater in the middle of the pack in terms of water rates.

Public Works Director Dave Church said the increases are no more than what the city needs to safely and adequately provide water services.

Councilman Craig Mooneyham made the motion to adopt the increases.

"I don't think there's anybody up here who relishes the idea of a rate increase," he said, adding that it was a "lack of action over the last 20 years that got us here in the first place."

In addition to Bergman's swearing in, three other city officials took the oaths of office following their Nov. 6 re-elections.

Joe Rivero, who secured 26.2 percent of the vote, won his seat back and will serve another four-year term.

City Clerk Jeanna Del Real ran unopposed in November at secured her seat with 96.6 percent of the vote.

Similarly, City Treasurer Jim Heller ran unopposed and regained his spot with 96.7 percent of the vote.

Outgoing Councilman Gary Frago lost his seat in the five-man council race after garnering only 9.8 percent of the vote.

As he departed from the dais Monday night, Frago noted several improvements the city's made over the past 12 years, including to public safety and retail activity.

"It's been a good 12 years and it's time I step down anyway," he said. "I've been connected with the city 35 years, so it's over half my life that I've been with the city of Atwater."

He congratulated Bergman and thanked the other candidates for running a "clean race."

Bergman said the city is facing many issues, and council members need to put their differences aside and work together.

"We have a lot of things to tackle ahead of us in the near future," he said. "It's going to take teamwork not only with council -- it's going to take teamwork with the citizens as well."

Reporter Mike North can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or mnorth@mercedsunstar.com.

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