Slightly new rules for protesting water fees

Water district

It’s time again to look at the cost of water bills distributed
by the Santa Clara Valley Water District. Last week, its board of
directors voted unanimously, 7-0, to amend the process by which
well owners protest the price of groundwater by opening the
tabulation process to public eyes.
It’s time again to look at the cost of water bills distributed by the Santa Clara Valley Water District. Last week, its board of directors voted unanimously, 7-0, to amend the process by which well owners protest the price of groundwater by opening the tabulation process to public eyes.

Well owners have the power to eliminate the monthly fee if a majority plus one protests the groundwater fees.

Last year for the first time, the district invited the public to protest – if they chose – the rate setting of the county’s groundwater fees. It failed with about 9.6 percent of South County well owners turning in a protest letter.

The amendment outlines the timeline of the protest and how the district will notify ratepayers whether they decided to decrease, increase or let alone groundwater fees. For the last three years, the district has maintained the same rate in South County: $275 per acre foot for municipal and industrial water and $16.50 per acre foot for agricultural water. One acre foot is enough to provide a family of five with water for a year.

According to district staff, the groundwater prices could go up to $285 per acre foot for municipal and industrial uses and increase by about $10 until 2020. The board of directors will hold a series of public hearings and meetings in Santa Clara County until April when they will close the protest process and finalize the price for the 2011-12 rate.

Today, the board of directors will listen to a staff presentation about groundwater production and rate setting at its 9:30 a.m. special meeting.

The district mail well owners notice of the protest process Feb. 25. Last year, the district was criticized for burying the protest rules on the fourth page of a four-page letter that appeared to be water district advertising, some well owners said.

A simple majority vote of 3,644 well owners in South County is needed for the monthly fee to be eliminated beginning in July. The water district said it will lose almost $14 million for South County if the protest is deemed successful – $6 million of which will come from a perchlorate surcharge over two years. That funding is regulated to replenish the groundwater basin, water recycling, water conservation and environmental projects.

The ability to protest stems from a decision by Superior Court Judge Kevin Murphy in November that said the district was illegally collecting groundwater fees, which are supposed to be put to a yearly vote by well owners under Proposition 218 and the Santa Clara Valley Water District Act. Murphy determined that the water district had to refund San Jose-based Great Oaks Water Co., which sued the district, more than $4.6 million – a year’s worth of illegally collected groundwater charges – after determining Great Oaks was overcharged in 2005-06. Prop 218 requires the district to send out notices outlining the protest process, though the district maintains that its fees do not fall under Prop 218’s property-related fees. The lawsuit is currently being appealed by the district.

The water district provides water and flood protection to the county’s 1.8 million people. The agency employs about 750 people has a budget of about $305 million.

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