The Santa Rosa City Council refused to approve two years' worth of water and sewer increases Tuesday, saying the city needs to do more to help poor residents cope with some of the highest rates in the region.
Instead of the increases for 2015 and 2016 requested by city staff, the council approved just one year of water and sewer rate hikes, equal to 3.3 percent in the monthly bill for an average family.
Councilmembers said they weren't willing to approve the requested increases for the second year, equal to 3.4 percent for an average family, until they heard more about the city's efforts to create a safety net for those struggling to pay their bills.
"I can't in good conscience take a fundamental essence of life and cost it out of reach," said Councilwoman Julie Combs.
The decision was a surprise to many. The proposed increases are more modest than the 9 percent increases seen for much of the previous decade, and were approved in October by the city's Board of Public Utilities.
City staff explained that the higher rates were necessary to build reserves for drought conditions, obtain a better balance between fixed and usage charges, pay for higher costs of energy and regulatory compliance, and to begin self-funding more project to reduce reliance on bond funding.
But several council members said while they respect the hard work of the BPU and city staff, they needed to see progress on programs to help the poor before they could back increases that risked hitting that population hardest.
"I think you need to go back and sharpen your pencil," Councilman Jake Ours told Utilities Director David Guhin.
Ours told Guhin that he might be convinced to support a second year of increases "if you came back with a plan that allowed us to help the poor users."
The city has a number of conservation programs already in place, such as the installation of low-flow shower heads and toilets, that can help people lower their water usage and bills, Guhin said.
But he explained that because of Proposition 218, programs to assist the poor cannot be funded with rate revenue. The city is reviewing how other cities operate programs for low-income residents and how they can be funded and managed, but does not yet have a plan in place, Guhin said.
Councilman Gary Wysocky said that while he appreciated the need to build in a cushion for drought conditions, he was struck by how high Santa Rosa's rates remain compared to other cities.
An average family in Santa Rosa would have a $143.49 per month bill in 2014, the second highest in the region only to Healdsburg, where the same family would pay $164.66.
The same family in Rohnert Park would pay $104.28, nearly 38 percent less than Santa Rosa's 2014 rate.
The council continued the policy of passing on wholesale water rates from the Sonoma County Water Agency onto ratepayers, which are estimated to translate into 2.2 percent increases in water bills.
But some council members expressed frustration with such increasing and largely uncontrollable costs. Councilwoman Erin Carlstrom said the city needs to find a way to do something about cost increases she characterized as "us being strong-armed by another governmental authority."