DOWNEY - For the first time since 1995, water rates in Downey are increasing.The City Council unanimously approved a new fee structure on Tuesday, which could double the amount Downey homeowners pay for water. City officials said the rate hike is necessary to properly maintain an aging water system more than 50 years old. Twenty groundwater wells pump 300 miles of potable water to about 111,000 Downey residents, public works director John Oskoui told council members. The water system is in need of preventive maintenance, including the replacement of inefficient water valves and fire hydrants, along with the installation of three new wells. "There has been no meaningful capital improvement project on the water system in the last 10 years because we didn't have the money," Oskoui said. "Without a rate adjustment, the reliability of the city's critical water facilities which require increased maintenance, rehabilitation and replacement to continue providing water to customers, would be compromised. Lack of a reliable water source would likely force the city to rely on more expensive imported water to meet daily water demands. This in turn would require an even larger rate increase in the future..." The city's water fund currently operates at an annual deficit of $8.1 million. The city also lacks the funds to complete emergency repairs, Oskoui added, while proposing an eventual 60-day water reserve fund. Most households that operate on a standard 5/8-inch water meter will see a fee increase of about $4.50 per bi-monthly billing cycle, starting in July, officials said. Rate increases continue every July 1 until 2015 based on a tiered rate structure. "[The] effects on an individual customer's bill will largely depend on the amount of water a customer uses," Oskoui wrote in a report. "The less water a customer uses, the lower the bill." Even with the rate hike, Oskoui said he projects the water fund to operate in the red the next five years. The fund, however, could receive a boost of several million dollars stemming from a successful lawsuit brought by the cities of Downey, Signal Hill and Cerritos against the Water Replenishment District, alleging illegal fee hikes. A judge ruled in the cities' favor earlier this year and the case is now in a lower court for a determination of damages, city officials said. The city received 22 letters in opposition to the rate increase, city attorney Yvonne Abich Garcia said. A handful of residents registered their opposition in person at Tuesday's City Council meeting; some blamed the city for "having their head in the sand" and waiting 16 years to address the issue. Council members said raising water rates was a matter of residents paying their fair share for infrastructure improvements. "In Southern California, water is gold," said Councilman David Gafin. "We've been paying cheap for the gold that we have. Nothing is the same (price) as it's been since 1995; water is. It's cheap gold and it's still going to be cheap gold compared to surrounding cities...We have to pay our own fair share." Mayor Luis Marquez expressed similar thoughts. "These are the things that are necessary to keep our water safe," he said. "And we will still have among the lowest water rates."
********** Published: June 30, 2011 - Volume 11 - Issue 10