As if the drought weren’t bad enough, water users in and around Visalia may soon be paying more at the tap.
California Water Service, in paperwork filed with the state’s Public Utility Commission, is proposing a series of rate increases starting in 2017 that would see its customers paying $6.79 more each month by 2019.
“Understanding that any kind of rate increase is painful to customers, if the rate changes are approved, customers are still paying well under a penny a gallon,” said Kevin McCusker, government and community relations assistant for Cal Water’s Visalia office. “The average customer is paying $34 or $35 a month in the Visalia area. It’s unfortunate that this rate increase coincides with the drought. I think there’s a concern that we understand customers are already under a lot of pressure. We want the customers to understand this is a public process overseen by the Commission.”
Infrastructure at Risk
The hikes are needed, Cal Water says, to pay for the replacement of aging infrastructure throughout its system, including 33,490 feet of water main — more than six miles — that are deemed at high risk of failure if they are not replaced soon.
“The main replacement is kind of spread over the whole district,” McCusker said. “High-risk means these things have a lifespan. The good news is as you replace them, the materials get better. It’s key to the company to reinvest this kind of money to benefit the customers. If we don’t replace them, it puts the system at risk.”
City to Have Its Say
Hammering out how the rates could change will be overseen by the CPUC in an 18-month process that includes input from customers and City Hall. McCusker said Cal Water has requested hearings on the rate changes be held in Visalia, thought that decision is the CPUC’s to make. Cal Water representatives and city staff met to discuss the increases before and after the filing, which Cal Water is required by law to make every three years.
“We’ve indicated to the PUC we’ll be weighing on their rate proposals,” said Visalia City Councilman Greg Collins. “I think we’re in our infancy. They’ve indicated they’re just going through the process for rate increases, so we don’t have any specifics at this time.”
City Hall disputed the amount of the last rate increase Cal Water proposed, and some concessions were made. Whether that will be the case this time remains to be seen.
“We’re in the wings in terms of reviewing and commenting,” Collins said, “but obviously it sounds like there’s nothing to comment on (to the CPUC) at this time.”
The city is, however, ready to fight the increases if necessary.
“Of course we’re not happy about it,” said Councilwoman Amy Shuklian. “That’s the trouble with having a privately-owned utility servicing our city. We have no control over what they do or how they do it. We fought a long, hard battle a few years back. We were able to whittle it down a bit, but certainly it’s not a good thing, especially when you’re asking people to save, save, save, and your bill stays the same.”
That frustration was part of the reason the city advocated for lesser increases last time, she said.
“We were able to get some compromises and concession with the commission,” Shuklian said. “People are using less, thinking their bill will be less, and it’s not.”
Increases Start Big
While the proposed increases total $6.79 over three years, the request for 2017 is a $5.05 per month hike, followed by 80 cents in 2018 and 94 cents in 2019. This roll-out is a cost-saving measure, McCusker said, and comes at the request of the commission.
“That is at the direction of the PUC,” he said. “Just like when you pay for things over time, so I’m using the mortgage kind of scenario as an analogy, as you spread the payments out, you actually increase the cost over time.”
Public Input Welcome
This could be a sticking point, and Cal Water expects the city to have its say.
“We expect that (since) the City of Visalia has been an intervener in the past, we expect them to provide some input to the commission,” McCusker said. “If it’s a request to spread the increase out, that would be up to the Commission.”
Citizens who wish to weigh in on the decision can send their comments directly to the CPUC. Instructions are available on its website, www.cpuc.ca.gov.
Payment Assistance Available
Options to reduce water bills are also available for low-income customers and for those experiencing short-term hardships.
“There is customer assistance available,” McCusker said. “It’s not difficult at all.”
Details on cost-cutting programs are available at calwater.com. To qualify for the Low-Income Rate Assistance program, a household with only one or two residents must have a combined income of less than $31,860. Applications for LIRA can be completed online or in person at Cal Water’s Visalia office, 216 N. Valley Oaks Dr.