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The way sewage rates are levied for many Sonoma Valley residences has been changed to take into account how much sewage they actually discharge, out of fairness and as a way to promote conservation.

"It is perceived as being more fair than a flat fee," said Spencer Bader, business division manager for the Sonoma County Water Agency, which runs the Sonoma Valley County Sanitation District.

Under the new structure, two-thirds of those ratepayers are seeing charges that are flat or less than before.

A third, however, are seeing rates increased, and for some the increase is substantial.

"I don't think as ratepayers we were given what our rates would go to," said Mayor Joanne Sanders, who's own home saw a 49 percent increase. "I don't think there was a lot of information given to the public about the potential of getting hit with 50 percent rate increases."

The sanitation district this year has a $13.2 million budget, a 5.5 percent increase over the 2011-2012 budget, which allows for sewage plant and system upgrades, Bader said.

Bader said the increase is in line with incremental increases over the past decade necessary to pay for $13.3 million in upgrades made since 1998 and for $13.6 million in upgrades being done this next year.

The district provides sewage services to 17,000 businesses and residences, both single-family and multiple family, in Sonoma and the Valley of the Moon.

Under the rate formula for the 2012-2013 budget year, there is a flat fee of $772, with the 5.5 percent increase.

However, there is now also a second tier of fees for 8,752 residences that take both sewer and water, which measures water use in January and February to set sewer rates.

For those residences, there is a flat fee of $540 to cover the district's fixed costs, which is 70 percent of the budget.

There is an additional charge of $4.30 for each 1,000 of gallons of water projected to be used this year, based on the January and February water use.

It accounts for 30 percent of the sanitation district budget to pay for costs that are related to volume, such as electric power and chemicals, Bader said.

It is also where residences will either see savings or increases.

Bader said the new structure was requested by a group of residents and approved by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors.

"A group of people have shown up at fee hearings every year and requested a volume-based charge," Bader said. "They said that with two people, a small yard and a dog and no teenage girls at home, they use less water and discharge less. They felt it was unfair to pay the same as a family of six with four teenaged girls and a big yard and a big house on the east side of Sonoma."

The sewage district bills are distributed with property tax assessments just now reaching residents.

Sanders, who is among the third who are paying more, said her household sewer bill went from $772 to $1,092.

"That is like $40 a month," Sanders said. "While all of us appreciate the spirit of what was trying to be accomplished, it is a tremendous burden to raise rates like that on some people. What I don't think is fair is the abruptness of it."

Scott Pace of Sonoma, whose bill went to $1,068 a year for his three-bedroom, 1,800-square-foot home on an 11,800-square-foot city lot, said January was an unfair month to use because it was unusually dry.

He also said he doesn't know how he will be able to use less water.

"We have water restricters everywhere we can use them, we never let water run, we run dishes with a full load, we do full load of laundry, I also have an electronic irrigation system that adjusts based on temperature and time of year," Pace said. "Now I have just totally shut it off and let things dry up."

You can reach Staff Writer Bob Norberg at 521-5206 or bob.norberg@pressdemocrat.com.