Mill Valley city officials hope to cap a of a plan to tonight as the City Council is set to take a final vote on a proposal to pay for rising costs and a massive upgrade of its aging wastewater system.
The city intends to more than double wastewater rates, from $297 a year to $694 in 2011-2012 and up to $827 by 2015-2016, a 178 percent hike. The city has not raised its wastewater rates since 2004 and the rate is low compared to the rest of Marin.
The council has backed the rate increase at several previous meetings but is expected tonight to conclude a process that began in early February. That process included a protest period during which the city has received at least 58 letters in opposition to the hike.
City officials said the rate increase is necessary for a variety of reasons, including a 15 percent rise in fees from the (SASM), the joint powers agency that collects and treats wastewater for approximately 28,000 local residents in Mill Valley and five neighboring sanitary districts. Part of those higher costs come from more stringent state regulations and an Environmental Protection Agency order issued in the wake of SASM’s massive 2008 spill of more than 3 million gallons of wastewater.
But the bulk of the rate hike will pay for a major overhaul on the city’s 59 miles of sewer pipes, much of which dates back some 50 years.
Under a mandate from the EPA, the city did a video-based inspection of 12.6 miles of its sewer lines as a basis for determining a sewer repair plan. The survey found the system to be laden with a variety of defects, including cracks, holes, blockages and tree root intrusion.
The majority of the city’s sewer pipes were installed more than 50 years ago and are primarily three- to four-foot sections of vitrified clay pipe, making them both brittle and laden with joints that connect one small section to another. Those joints are susceptible to intrusion from groundwater as well as tree roots, according to interim Public Works Director Jill Barnes.
The city has estimated the cost of the overhaul at between $2 million and $2.5 million per year over the next five years, a figure that dwarfs the $550,000 a year the city has been spending on sewer system repairs in recent years.
“The rate increase is a reflection that we have neglected to fix our underground wastewater pipes – and it will only get worse,” said Mayor Ken Wachtel at a community meeting Monday night.
Monday night’s public hearing takes place on the heels of a May 17 public workshop on the issue and a 45-day protest period mandated by Proposition 218. City Manager Jim McCann said many of the letters received during that period acknowledge the genuine need for the increase but nevertheless expressed disappointment at the seemingly never-ending increases, as the and in garbage rates.
Several letters also cited a lack of income to afford the rate hikes, and the city is offering a low-income credit system for those that meet low-income requirements established by McCann. The low-income credit system could be worth as much as 25 percent of the annual sewer rate, according to the city’s proposal.
The city also hopes to cushion the blow for customers by offering flow-based rates, or those that are based on the amount of sewage output from a residence, thereby giving customers incentives to use less water and lower their rate. SASM’s commercial customers currently have flow-based rates. Such a move wouldn’t happen until next year, McCann said.
John Farnkopf, one of the city’s consultants on the sewer rate hike, said that the majority of customers would actually see a rate decrease in a flow-based system, but that the highest water users would see a substantial increase.
Such a move is complex, city officials said. It would involve compiling residential meter data from MMWD and matching it with parcel numbers on the tax rolls. Individual sewer charges would then be calculated by estimating waste discharge based on each parcel’s metered water use.
The public hearing on the proposed sewer rate hike is tonight at 7:30 p.m. in council chambers at City Hall, 26 Corte Madera Ave. The council webcasts its meeting here.