Fresno will take another step toward residential water meters today when the City Council is scheduled to vote on a new way for residents to pay for the scarce resource.
"Water meters are coming; there's no getting around it," Public Utilities director Rene Ramirez said, adding, "I believe the rate structure is fair."
Council President Cynthia Sterling said she wishes Fresno had tackled residential water meters years ago. But, she said, City Hall has little choice now but to approve a metered rate so the journey toward citywide water meters can proceed.
"Is the timing right? It never is," Sterling said. "But there's no going back."
At today's 5 p.m. hearing, Public Utilities will ask the council to approve a residential water rate that charges metered residential customers 61 cents for every 100 cubic feet of water -- 748 gallons.
The monthly bill will include a set charge based on the size of meter required to connect to the water pipe. City officials say residential water pipes range from three-quarters of an inch to 2 inches, with larger pipes generally found on large home lots.
Ramirez said the metered rate is designed to be "cost neutral" when spread over Fresno's approximately 110,000 single-family residences. This means that some customers will pay more than they currently do under Fresno's fixed water rate, while others will pay less.
Customers decide on which side they fall by whether they are stingy or extravagant with their water use, Ramirez said.
The new rate based on level of consumption would apply only when customers get their meters. Until then, customers will continue being charged at the current flat rate.
Fresno had long been a rebel in this semi-desert region by refusing to embrace residential water meters. Fresno's current monthly residential water rate is $22.87 for home lots up to 6,000 square feet and about 23 cents for each additional 100 square feet in lot size.
Customers pay the same rate whether they use 100 gallons of water a month, or 10,000. According to Public Utilities, a typical Fresno residential water customer pays $28.32 per month.
The department estimates that residential customers on the metered rate will pay about $19.61 per month based use of 7,480 gallons of water. Customers who use 37,400 gallons per month would pay $44.01.
Ramirez emphasized that the proposed metered rate is designed only to recover the costs of service and will not produce a funding surplus.
State law and pressure from the federal government in recent years is putting an end to Fresno's water-using habits. The feds wielded the biggest hammer, vowing to annually withhold 60,000 acre feet of Central Valley Project water if Fresno didn't put meters in single-family homes.
Since that's about 40% of Fresno's yearly water consumption, the city got the message loud and clear. The city is required to begin installing residential water meters in 2010, and have the job completed by January 2013. The city's multifamily dwellings, businesses and institutions such as schools have been on meters for decades.
In a Public Utilities pilot project, 70 residences have been billed on the proposed metered rate for the past eight months. Department officials note the average bill is essentially the same as the customers would have paid under the flat-rate structure.
The significance of today's hearing, required by Proposition 218, is that, in theory at least, owners of Fresno's 110,000 single-family residences could reject the proposed rate and send city officials back to the drawing board. But it would take a majority vote.
The likelihood of that appears remote. Public Utilities spokeswoman Ann Kloose said that the department had received only 22 valid protests as of Tuesday afternoon. Homeowners also may vote in person at today's hearing.
Yet, while it's unlikely that some 55,000 protesting homeowners will show up at City Hall today, it's possible that council members will get an earful from at least a few.
As events in Clovis show, the meters by themselves don't prevent billing increases. The Clovis City Council on Monday approved four hikes to water rates spread over the next 30 months that will raise the average residence's bill by about two-thirds. Clovis officials said a sharp drop in home construction forced the increases.
And on July 16, when the volunteer Fresno Utility Advisory Committee presented a report that included water-rate recommendations, several Fresnans expressed their doubts. One speaker called the proposals "a good gouging" of ratepayers.
City officials apparently were listening. The committee asked city officials to consider a drought surcharge that would replenish the Water Department's coffers if customers conserved too much water.
Ramirez said Tuesday that a drought surcharge is not being considered.