Marysville isn’t the only community in the state served by California Water Service facing hefty water rate increases. The state Public Utilities Commission is processing three-year rate hikes in 25 Cal Water service areas in California. While Marysville ratepayers are looking at a possible 35 percent increase in 2014, there are other communities where bills would jump even higher. Dixon, in Solano County, is looking at a 57 percent hike, King City, in Monterey County, an increase of 38 percent and Antelope Valley a nearly 60 percent jump.
Kirsten Larson, who is opposing the increase in Antelope Valley, in northern Los Angeles County, admitted her city’s situation is different from Marysville. She said Cal Water serves only 700 customers in an area surrounded by other public systems. The point for her is that it isn’t right for private companies to be providing a commodity that is necessary for people to live.
“We have public good and a private company whose motive is to provide money for the stockholders,” Larson said. “But nobody is really looking at whether people can afford the rates.”
Marysville’s rates have been adjusted from the original application that called for increases of 18.4 percent in 2014, 20.1 percent in 2015 and 9.4 percent in 2016. Due to financing costs, it’s now 34.9 percent the first year and less than 1 percent in each of the next two years. That could change further once the results of the Division of Ratepayer Advocates negotiations with Cal Water are made public in about another month.
“If this was a municipal district, they would come to us as voters and tell us why we should need to increase our rates,” rate opponent Connie Walczak recently told Marysville Joint Unified School District trustees. “Cal Water doesn’t have to come to the voters. They go straight to the PUC and we have no say.”
The Oakland-based state chapter of the Food & Water Watch advocacy group has been critical of private ownership of water systems. It also provides support to communities wanting to push for municipal takeovers of private systems.
“When you have a public system, the dollars from the rates are being invested in the local community,” said Adam Skow, Food & Water Watch state campaign director. “One of the things we have seen in the last decade is that companies have been more aggressive in seeking rate increases.”
At the same time, Skow admitted it’s very difficult to make the conversion from a private company to a municipal system — especially when private company is an unwilling seller. Cal Water officials have said they would not shut down in Marysville without a fight.
“We keep hearing that we are a private monopoly, but a government owned utility is a monopoly also,” said Lee Seidel, district manager for Cal Water in Marysville. “But what we have is that we are regulated and we don’t get to set our own rates. Government utilities get to set their own rates.”
With Cal Water owning its wells and the land on which they are located, along with water lines, such a conversion would involve seizing property through eminent domain, Skow said. Financing would have to be done through community bonds.
“They (Cal Water) will use their might to fight the community,” he said. Skow said he doesn’t know enough about the specifics of Marysville’s situation to discuss the feasibility of such a transfer here. “But I do know it can be done,” he said.
Marysville schools consider action
Marysville Joint Unified School District trustees may do what the City Council did not — take formal action on California Water Service’s proposed rate increase. The citizens group Marysville for Reasonable Water Rates received a sympathetic ear last week when members approached the school board about opposing the increase. “We have lost so many programs in this district and we cannot afford a rate increase,” said Trustee Jim Flurry. The board couldn’t take a vote last week since the issue wasn’t on the agenda. They directed that a resolution opposing the increase be brought to the next meeting on Aug. 27.
“This is taking money away from your students, your programs, your staff,” Connie Walczak of the citizens group told the board. “This could easily hire a staff person if these rates continue to go up, and they will continue to go up.”
District officials could not be reached Friday to provide information on how much the district pays Cal Water. Justin Skarb, Cal Water’s government and community relations manager, said his company will request to make a presentation to the board.
“We hope that the board of trustees understands that, despite the current economic climate, we have an obligation to provide safe water and reliable fire protection while meeting increasingly stringent water quality and environmental regulations,” Skarb said.
Skarb noted that in 2012 Cal Water paid more than $200,000 in fees and taxes, some of which go to district schools. He also said Cal Water will be inviting the district take part in its conservation programs and to partner in promoting its low-income rate assistance program to the families of students. While the City Council has not taken action on the issue, Mayor Ricky Samayoa has suggested the idea of an independent review of the increase application to be funded by large ratepayers.