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County Council Approves New Water Rates

on April 12, 2019 - 9:51am
Los Alamos County Council looks at the proposed new rates for water usage during the April 2 meeting. Photo by Kirsten Laskey/
Los Alamos Daily Post

Los Alamos Department of Public Utilities (DPU) customer water rates are going up 6.25 percent in the next billing cycle.

Council adopted the new rates at its April 2 meeting in a vote of 6-1. Councilor Antonio Maggiore opposed the increase.

While the rate increase was approved; Council asked DPU administrators to address the recent rash of utility billing inaccuracies some customers have experienced.

Council Chair Sara Scott said if possible, she would like council to receive a summary of issues regarding the new billing software, the strategy and timeline for addressing them as well as some options for folks who need assistance in paying their bills.

Maggiore opposed the rate increase because of billing issues, explaining that he felt the basic and in-house issues, especially billing, should be resolved before any request to raise rates is made.

Council Vice Chair Pete Sheehey echoed Maggiore’s concerns regarding billing.

“I am most displeased not with utilities … but we paid a large amount of money to a contractor to implement a new enterprise system, which included utility billing and clearly it is not nearly up to what our previous patched-together, old, said to be obsolete, utility billing was doing for many years. I feel we haven’t gotten our money’s worth from them,” Sheehey said.

He added that it is a “fair gripe” that DPU customers are frustrated that utility rates are asked to be raised while they are getting inaccurate bills. Billing, Sheehey said, needs to be straighten out.

“We expect better,” he said, “and if they (the contractor) can’t supply ... then we need to find someone who will.”

Councilor David Izraelevitz said he didn’t feel the council should lose sight of DPU’s long-range financial plans by opposing the water rate increase. However, he said he felt the department’s support mechanisms for those who struggle to pay their utility bills need to be promoted.

“I would appreciate it if the utilities department would highlight some of the support mechanisns we have because ... this summer as the water usage comes up, people might need it and should be alerted to it ... I think we should make more of an effort to let people know about it (DPU’s financial assistance programs),” Izraelevtiz said.

In addition to addressing billing issues, Scott called for DPU, Public Works and the engineering coordination committee, which are integrating planning for related projects, to work more together.

“I would like to see these areas working even more strongly together in the future in terms of being able to set a vision for how we even more effectively and efficiently coordinate and prioritize our near-term infrastructure investments … It will make sure we’re being efficient in how we’re coordinating these things. And it will enable us to be able to develop a long-term integrated vision and strategy in these long-term investments we are making and need to be making …,” Scott said.

According to a County press release, DPU requested the price for wholesale water increase from $3.42 to $3.63 per 1,000 gallons and the monthly service charge be adjusted from $643.90 to $684.14. Non-potable water sold for irrigation purposes to Los Alamos County and the Los Alamos Public Schools, would see an increase from $2.50 to $2.66 per 1,000 gallons.

Additionally, DPU asked to raise the monthly service fee and drinking water rates for retail customers (including residential, commercial, county and schools). Residential customers with meters sized at 1-1/4 inch or under would see the monthly service fee increase from $9.42 to $10.01; and customers with meters sized at 1-1/2 inch would see the monthly fee increase from $29.84 to $31.71. Retail drinking water rates would increase from $4.98 to $5.29 per 1,000 gallons for commercial, county and school customers all year, and residential and multi-family customers during the non-peak season.

Peak season tiered rates apply only to residential and multi-family customers and are in effect May 1 through Sept. 30. DPU seeks to adjust the tier one rate (water consumed below 9,000 gallons) from $4.98 to $5.29 per 1,000 gallons for both residential and multi-family customers. The tier two rates (water consumed between 9,000 and 15,000 gallons) would increase from $5.29 to $5.62 per 1,000 gallons for residential customers, and $5.23 to $5.56 per 1,000 gallons for multi-family customers. Tier 3 rates (water consumed above 15,000 gallons) would increase from $6.32 to $6.72 per 1,000 gallons for residential customers, and from $5.35 to $5.68 per 1,000 gallons for multi-family customers.

For example, a residential customer who consumes 5,000 gallons would see the water bill increase from $34.32 to $36.46.

The reason behind the increase is to improve the DPU’s finances. In an earlier interview with the Los Alamos Daily Post, DPU Manager Tim Glasco said while water sales have dropped 20 percent over the last eight years, the costs to distribute the water and perform routine repairs and replace portions of the system as needed have risen. In fact, it has gotten to the point where expenses have risen above revenue.

Still, DPU Deputy Manager Robert Westervelt told the Council DPU’s water rates are half of 1 percent of the median household community.

“Compared to our income … even with this increase and projected future increase, we remain very affordable for the average income in Los Alamos,” Westervelt said.

He added that as Maggiore has previously mentioned, “We’re not all median household income earners.” So Westervelt did show Councilors how the new rates measure up to median income in New Mexico.

“We remain pretty consistent around 1 percent of New Mexico median household income … It still appears quite affordable,” Westervelt said.