Sean Janssen, The Union Democrat

PUBLIC MEETING: Calaveras County Water District, 9 a.m. Wednesday, board room at former district headquarters complex, 423 E. St. Charles St., San Andreas.

Barring thousands of protest letters at the 11th hour, the Calaveras County Water District Board of Directors will have the opportunity Wednesday to vote to increase water and sewer rates by more than 60 percent during the next five years.

The steep increases proposed to tackle nearly $25 million in infrastructure repairs and replacements for an aging system have been met with plenty of vocal derision. Town halls hosted by CCWD last month in Arnold, Copperopolis and Rancho Calaveras drew hundreds of outraged ratepayers who gave district staff and directors an earful.

However, to ensure the board cannot enact the increase - which would take monthly sewer rates from $67.50 up in annual steps to $109.46 by 2017 and water bills from $39.50 to $66.84 - a majority protest as prescribed in California's 1996 Proposition 218 must take place.

According to CCWD Executive Assistant Mona Walker, as of July 3, the validated protests received by the district fell well below that threshold. Of 12,725 water customers, just 1,561 protested the increase with 6,363 needed to prevent it.

With 4,790 sewer customers, 821 registered a protest, with 2,396 needed to stop those rates from going up. If approved, the increases begin Sept. 1, with an initial 25 percent hike in water rates and 15 percent in sewer bills.

The district will continue to accept the protest letters until the public hearing is closed at Wednesday's meeting and the matter comes to the board for deliberation, CCWD General Manager Mitch Dion said.

Some people at the town halls accused the district of shenanigans like failing to count protest letters without a date written on it but Dion said any letter that can be tied to a valid service address with a signature of a property owner or other legally responsible party will be tallied.

A sample protest letter remains available for download at the district's website,

"We wanted to accommodate people," Dion said.

The district also took flak for possible confusion on the meeting location, with the public hearing scheduled for the board room at the former headquarters complex at 423 E. St. Charles St., while a new $3.1 million office building with a somewhat larger board room opened Monday.

Dion said the district could not be certain the new space would be available for Wednesday's hearing when it mailed out legal notices to ratepayers more than six weeks ago.

"There was no certificate of occupancy until late last week," he said.

Dion said folding chairs, shade canopies and drinking water will be provided outside the board room if an overflow crowd exceeding the capacity of 64 arrives for the morning meeting.

Even if protests fall short of a majority, there is precedent for a board to be swayed by a sizable protest. Tuolumne Utilities District directors backed off of a similarly steep rate hike lastyear after public outcry yet four of its five seats up for election in the fall went to newcomers.

Four CCWD seats will be on the ballot next year, with only Jeff Davidson of Valley Springs, re-elected in 2011, in the midst of a term that extends beyond 2014.