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Lathrop Council OKs 3-year water, sewer rate increases
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LATHROP – Lathrop residents will pay higher water and sewer rates starting in March.

After delaying their decision for two weeks following a plea from many of its low-income and fixed-income residents not to raise their monthly utility bills, the City Council unanimously approved the higher rates but did so with great reluctance.

“I struggled with this long and hard,” said Mayor Kristy Sayles.

But she did not see any “good” alternatives available either. She also pointed out that providing residents with sewer and water services is “not an option” for the city.

“We are required to provide sewer and water,” Sayles said.

“It’s a tough situation,” Councilman Sonny Dhaliwal said about the dilemma he and the rest of the council struggled with, whether to continue subsidizing the water and sewer rate shortfalls with the city’s General Fund account – as much as $1 million a year – to help cash-strapped residents but run the risk of jeopardizing police and fire services.

“Can we continue to subsidize (these services)? No. If we do, others will suffer, like safety,” he said.

Before making the decision, he added, “I prayed to God that I’d do the right thing.”

Councilman Christopher Mateo said during the roll-call vote that he was voting “yes, reluctantly.”

Vice Mayor Martha Salcedo also prefaced her yes vote by making sure the resolution she was approving will include language that requires this issue to be revisited on an annual basis.

Following the outcry from many Lathrop citizens who said the originally proposed five-year increases in their monthly utility bills pared too close to their financial bones, the council instructed staff to come up with creative ways to minimize the burden on the residents. Staff managed to reduce the increases by half of the original suggestions, which could be spread out either on a five-year or three-year duration with the council to decide on the time period. But those increases were still too much for some residents, and the council asked staff once more to see if there’s anything else that could be done to reduce the amounts.

Tuesday night, staff came back with the report that “after extensive consideration,” they and the “city’s consultant reached the conclusion that all expenses had already been reduced to the minimum amount advisable to operate the utilities at a fiscally responsible level.”

Here are the monthly rate increases that will occur in the next five years, from 2009 to 2011.

Water rates, all 6 percent hikes: (For all residents living in Historic Lathrop which is the area east of Interstate 5) $41 a month in 2009, $44 in 2010, and $46 in 2011. (For the west side residents, also 6 percent increases), $32 a month in 2009, $35 in 2010, and $37 in 2011.

Sewer rates, 15 percent increases: (For east Lathrop residents) $39 a month in 2009, $45 in 2010, and $52 in 2011. (For west of I-5 residents) $38 a month in 2009, $43 in 2010, and $48 in 2011.

The disparity in the monthly bills is due to a number of factors including Mello-Roos district fees which is the case of the lower water monthly bills for west Lathrop residents, and the amount and type of maintenance needed to deliver the services to each area.

Like other cities and communities throughout the country, Lathrop also has to abide by federal and state mandates to reduce the amount of arsenic contaminants in its underground water sources. That mandate requires the construction of arsenic-removal facilities, adding to the cities’ financial burdens which are ultimately passed on to the consumers by way of monthly utility rate increases such as what just happened in Lathrop.

As part of their ongoing cost-reduction research, Interim City Manager Cary Keaten and his staff said they filed an application “for a little under $2 million of Economic Stimulus Funding” to help fund the city’s arsenic-removal project. Keaten said the city already has secured $10.5 million federal funds for  the facility’s construction. Still in the air is whether they will be able to receive the additional $2.5 million grant for the same project.
He said the construction phase will take from one-and-a-half to two years.

“We can revisit our costs every year and see what’s changed,” Keaten said about the city’s water and sewer services.

“Things change over the course of the year,” which could lead to lower monthly rates for residents, he said.

But for now, the rate increases are inevitable, noted Salcedo.

“If we don’t do this, our city will go bankrupt, for one thing. It’s important for the public to know that,” she said.