Corona proposes new rates for water

by Leslie Parrilla, The Press Enterprise

Corona is considering changing how it charges residents and businesses for water to encourage conservation and decrease costs for some, using a system common in California that experts say the public will likely want to understand before supporting.

This month, the city is holding information meetings on the proposed water rate change before public hearings next month when the City Council considers the proposal Feb. 3 and 17. Notices were sent to the public Dec. 18 containing information about tiered water rates, said city officials.

The tiered rate system would charge customers different amounts depending on how much water they use, how large the irrigable landscape on their property is and how many people live in the home.

The city is offering adjustments for customers with special needs such as businesses in the home or homes with more than the average four people.

The city currently charges a flat rate for water but says tiered rates increase fairness and promote water efficiency by charging customers depending on how much they use and for what purpose.

If customers exceed their budgeted water amount, they would be charged more.
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Several people have sent e-mails and letters to the city opposing the tiered rate and wanted more information about it, said Ed Lockhart, of the Corona Department of Water and Power.

Experts at the Consumer Federation of California, a consumer rights group, said the key to understanding whether a tiered water system is fair is ensuring that people understand it.

"You have to be careful and make sure the rates are simple enough for customers to understand because understanding is the first step toward acceptance," said Lex Wodtke, a staff attorney for the federation.

Corona has five tiers for residential customers and four for commercial that begin at $1.80 and $1.99 per unit, respectively, and climb to $9.95 for those considered "wasteful" users.

To determine whether the rates are fair, consumers have to understand how the city arrived at them, said Danilo Sanchez, of the Division of Ratepayer Advocates, an advocacy group that regulates private California water utilities.

Sanchez said the majority of large utilities his group regulates charge on a tiered rate instead of a flat rate. Neighboring cities such as Riverside use a tiered rate while Norco charges a flat rate.

Tiered rates are believed to be fair and effective in reducing costs for people who don’t use much water and charging more to wasteful users, Wodtke said.

Lockhart said the city has based its tiered rates on how much the city is charged to deliver water.

About 50 percent of the city’s water supply is imported while the remainder is groundwater.

Major water reservoirs are at historic lows, Lockhart said. And city officials increased the cost of water in July to cover inflation and rising costs for maintenance and purchased water.

Lockhart expects the program to decrease water bills for 78 percent of residential customers, if they use water efficiently. The remainder of residents would fall into inefficient, excessive or wasteful rate categories.

"We’re hoping if you’re in the other tiers, we’re going to be able to provide you a budget… and help you to not be in those categories," Lockhart said. "The goal is not to penalize anybody."

If the council passes the proposed rates, it would become effective April 26.