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In an attempt to reduce water use during California’s severe drought, Sonoma’s City Council will consider raising water rates next month and imposing a new tiered-pricing system that puts the financial squeeze on the city’s heaviest water users.

City officials said the rate hike is designed to encourage residents to cut water consumption at a time when the state is wrestling with one of its worst droughts in decades.

“That’s the main purpose,” Public Works Director Dan Takasugi said.

“We’re steepening the conservation tiers to put a little bit more of the cost burden on what we call the heavy water users,” he added. “We’re trying to lessen the burden on the (customers) that use less water and conserve more.”

Still, average households will feel the hit.

If the proposal is approved, the average monthly water bill for a single-family residence would climb from $79.66 to $102.22 over a five-year span, an increase of 28 percent.

Businesses also would see a significant hike. For example, the average monthly bill for a restaurant would increase by nearly 40 percent, to $468.30, in the same time frame.

Council members will hold a public hearing on the proposed rate increase at 6 p.m. Nov. 17.

While customers’ rates haven’t increased in the past two years, Takasugi said the city has been paying about 4 to 5 percent more each year for the water it buys from the Sonoma County Water Agency. About 95 percent of the city’s water comes from the agency.

The city needs to increase its water rates, along with its service and one-time connection fees, to offset the growing cost of water it buys, Takasugi said. It also needs $7.6 million to cover maintenance and capital improvement projects over the next five years, he added.

For example, water mains and service lines on West Napa Street need to be replaced.

“They’re getting very old and leaking,” Takasugi said, adding it could cost more to fix in the future if the city doesn’t come up with the money.

If approved, Takasugi said the new rates and fees would kick in sometime in January or February.

Two years ago, council members shot down a similar measure to raise water rates by at least 25 percent over five years — even after a water-rate study reported that the existing rate structure would not be sustainable in the future. Council members were concerned the city had not explored other options.

“There was opposition at that time from the public,” Mayor Tom Rouse said about the 2012 proposal.

He expects a similar response this year, adding that he needs to do more research before he decides how to vote on the proposal next month.

“We have to look at the cost of operations and understand what that means to the users,” said Rouse, who opposed an increase two years ago.

Commercial users currently make up 11 percent of the city’s 4,200 accounts, while single-family and multifamily residences make up 86 percent.

Councilwoman Laurie Gallian, who also opposed a rate increase in 2012, said the new proposal “represents a fairer picture than what we have looked at in the past.” It gives customers a better idea of how much they’re using and puts the biggest pressure on heavy users with the additional rate tiers proposed, she explained.

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“A lot of this is (about) dealing with the water you can control, which is around landscape,” she said, adding, “People need to be educated on what their water issue is.”

You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 521-5458 or eloisa.gonzalez@pressdemocrat.com.

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