Editor's Note: This letter to the editor originally ran as an op-ed in the San Mateo Daily Journal on May 1. It has been re-published in part here.
I thought Belmont’s 19 percent sewer rate increase (9.5 percent per year for two years) was high until learning about San Bruno’s proposal to raise the entire utility bill (water, garbage and sewer) 22.4 percent, each year compounded for five years. Currently, my bimonthly utility bill is around $200—lower than most San Bruno residents. If the increase gets approved, next year it will be more than $250; year two, more than $300; year three, about $366; year four, approximately $450; and year five will be more than $500.
San Bruno’s proposed utility rate increase would be the highest in the area and is unaffordable to residents, especially in this fragile economy. And larger families will suffer because a third, higher-cost rate tier will be added. Cities should be emulating good business practices by slashing rates, not raising them. And they should focus on enhancing the general fund through spending cuts; aggressive economic development by attracting new businesses with incentives, as opposed to overregulation and overtaxation; and by reining in unsustainable pensions, salaries and benefits. (Unfortunately, San Bruno has been known to “borrow” money from the water/sewer fund to deposit into the general fund using creative financing methods. Yet, the water/sewer fund is supposed to be a “stand-alone” fund.) The idea of raising rates on the “99 percent,” while giving millions of dollars of free, underground infrastructure to the developers of the former Navy base property is troubling.
This rate increase could have dire consequences. We will be seeing an increase in brown lawns, more foreclosures and a decline in property values. Renters will be adversely affected as well. An elderly landlord couple I know of has a current utility bill of $600 for a rental duplex. With the rate increase, it will be a whopping $1,400 by year five. Most assuredly, San Bruno renters will receive rent increases so landlords can cover escalating utility costs. And condominium complexes are in jeopardy if this increase passes. There is a already a record number of foreclosures and non-payment of homeowners dues as it is. Additionally, when people have less money to spend in their city due to rising fees, taxes, etc., the city’s income is diminished from less sales tax, and it all becomes a vicious cycle.
There are things that can be done in San Bruno to significantly lower water and wastewater costs. Since we have many natural underground springs, it would be prudent to depend more on our own water delivery system. When all our wells are up and running, residents get 65 percent of their water from wellwater, and the rest from Hetch Hetchy. One-hundred percent independence could be a goal. Another idea, which to its credit San Bruno did once in 2008, is to eliminate more of our costly sewer pump stations by re-routing pipes to flow downhill. I understand this saves a huge amount of money in operating costs and has the potential to keep sewer rates low.
According to state law, city councils must allow citizens to protest utility rate increases either in writing and/or by speaking at the (May 8 for San Bruno). We must wake up to the fact that water is the new gold, and in some countries there will be water wars. Let’s not have any revenue battles in our local cities. Hopefully, the City Council will understand the financial stress of a utility bill increase for residents and do the right thing by keeping the rates the same or even offering financial incentives for lower water use.
To contact Barbara LaRaia about the rate increases, you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 650-615-9384. She has forms that residents can sign if they oppose the proposed rate hikes.