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Fran Tanti and her husband, Joe, have been talking for a while about removing the front lawn of their Windsor home and putting in drought-resistant landscaping.

"Something always comes up — let's go on vacation, let's pay the dental bill," Fran Tanti said.

But the Tantis now plan to rip out that turf and replace it with something less thirsty by taking advantage of an innovative program that goes into effect in August.

Windsor residents will be able to install water-saving measures, fixtures and appliances without upfront cost or taking on debt.

Financed by the town, the program allows homeowners and renters to pay for the upgrades over five to 15 years with a surcharge on their utility bill.

"This is the catalyst. It makes you think someone will help you do this," Tanti said.

Officials say the amount customers save on their bills by cutting water consumption will more than offset the bi-monthly surcharge to pay for things such as high-efficiency washing machines, toilets, showerheads, on-demand hot-water recirculation pumps, and turf replacement.

It "gives people more choice and more power to lower their bills. I'm proud that Windsor is offering this to their residents," Mayor Debora Fudge said. "Windsor is taking the lead and being creative and attentive to our customers."

If successful, the program will save approximately 35 million gallons of water a year, according to Paul Piazza, Windsor's water conservation coordinator.

Not all councilmembers were were willing to authorize the Pay As You Save, or PAYS, program, which has been used in four other states by 10 utilities, but never before in California.

"This was looked at by quite a few other jurisdictions, and they passed on it. It didn't look like it penciled out to me," Councilman Steve Allen said. "Hopefully it will work, and go forward, and be a huge success. But I have my doubts."

Allen and Robin Goble were in the minority on the 3-2 vote last week approving the launch of the program.

Goble said it's a good idea, but "I don't feel comfortable being the first jurisdiction in California doing it. It's a little bit risky in this economic time."

Fudge, along with councilmembers Sam Salmon and Cheryl Scholar, prevailed in the move to transfer up to $4 million in reserves from the town's water and wastewater accounts to fund the program.

Salmon previously characterized the initiative as "an investment in the future," because more efficient water use means the town won't have to develop as many new water sources.

"PAYS was identified as a game-changing tool we could adopt to conserve water, conserve energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions," Ann Hancock, an official with the Climate Protection Campaign told the Town Council."It's a model program for communities everywhere."

Town officials expect as many as 2,000 of Windsor's utility customers, or one-quarter of the town's households, will take part.

The Town Council at the same time increased water rates by an average of 9 percent, but officials said that is primarily to pay for upgrades to the water system, including new wells, pipes, meters and tank re-coating, and is not to fund PAYS.

PAYS was developed by the Energy Efficiency Institute in Colchester, Vt. It is funded in part with a grant from the Department of Energy held by the Sonoma County Regional Climate Protection Authority. It will be administered by the county's Energy Independence Program, which will field customer inquiries and also oversee the contractors who are certified to install the upgrades.

Customers who participate can expect to get about $1 in savings for every 75 cents of surcharge added to their water bill, Piazza said.

For participants, there is a "program activity charge" included in the surcharge, similar to interest and calculated at 7 percent of the total installed cost.

It enables Windsor to provide the capital funding and also stabilize water and water reclamation revenues so that non-participants don't experience large rate increases. It's essentially intended to offset the loss of revenue from water sales as customers conserve more.

If a participant moves, the next resident takes over paying the surcharge, but also benefits from the utility bill savings provided by the conservation measures.

Customers who move also can choose to take with them certain appliances — such as a clothes washer or refrigerator — and pay off the remaining surcharge payments.

Already more than 120 customers have expressed an early interest in the program by signing up to obtain more information at www.windsorefficiencypays.com.

Information is also available by calling 565-6472.

(You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com.)

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