Sean Janssen, The Union Democrat

The Calaveras County Water District adopted major increases in water and sewer bills Wednesday that will take effect Sept. 1.

The district's Board of Directors voted 4-1 to enact a modified version of a five-year rate plan recommended by staff to address about $25 million in identified infrastructure repair and replacement needs.

The plan was supported by directors Jeff Davidson, Scott Ratterman, Dennis Dooley and Don Stump. It will take the base rate of $67.50 a month for sewer services to $77.63 this fall, $86.16 a year later and $90 in September 2015 and remain flat through September 2018, for a total increase of 33 percent. Water rates will rise more sharply, with the base rate for 500 cubic-feet of water per month on a typical residential meter going from $39.50 to $49.38 on Sept. 1, $56.78 in September 2014 and then settle at $61.89 for three years beginning in September 2015, for an increase of 57 percent.

"We have to go forward with something. I don't think the community is ready for the whole proposal," Davidson said, following a public hearing of more than five hours filled with backlash against the rate hikes. "I do think the (full) proposal is the cheapest way to do (the upgrades). I recognize by funding this at a lower level, it's going to cost more in the future … (but) with all the impacts to the community, it's the right thing to do at this time."

The recommended rate plan would have pushed water rates up 69 percent and sewer rates 62 percent by the final year. A customer receiving both services today receives a bi-monthly bill for $214. That will go up to $254.02 on Sept. 1 and top out at $303.78 two years later under the adopted plan. It would have reached $352.60 in September 2017 if adopted as proposed.

Director Bob Dean voted against accepting the modified rate plan immediately because he wanted to see a staff report on what implications it would have for reducing the district's ability to take on the needed repairs and replacements.

"You've got to have the numbers," Dean said. "This was a knee-jerk reaction. Staff have been crunching numbers the last year and a half to get to the proposal we had before us today."

"We just immediately shot ourselves in the foot and we still have to walk down the road," he added.

The highest priority projects discussed in Wednesday's hearing were a $4.5 million sewage treatment plant for Copper Cove, facing a state deadline in less than two years to be upgraded, and $1 million in water line replacements for the Ebbetts Pass corridor, among nearly $3 million in line replacements districtwide.

The treatment plant upgrade is part of efforts to avoid spills into Tulloch Reservoir and associated fines and cleanup costs, district officials said. The age and vulnerability of the Arnold-area water lines has been shown in several serious pipe bursts, the most recent occurring Friday, shutting off water service for several hours on a busy holiday weekend while repairs were made.

"We can run it until it fails, but the problem with that is it gets expensive. This is the most expensive way to go," CCWD General Manager Mitch Dion said. "If we want to pay fines, that's a waste of ratepayers' money. But that's the inevitable result of funding for failure."

Dozens of county residents chastised the district for poor planning and financial management during the hearing.

Many also criticized the format of the Proposition 218 protest process. A majority protest of ratepayers would have prevented a vote on rate increases but just 2,288 of 12,775 water customers submitted a valid protest and only 1,242 of 4,790 sewer customers before the hearing. An additional 573 were received before the hearing closed but CCWD Executive Assistant Mona Walker said even if valid and added to either total it would not create a majority.

The district launched a five-year rate plan in 2007 with increases it then stated were to include funding for many of the same capital improvement needs still unaddressed today, some argued.

"We have no reason to believe you won't take this money and do what you've done the last time around," said Murphys resident Ken Duncan.

"The key issue here is trust," said Dale Pilgeram, president of the Pinebrook Homeowners Association in Arnold.

The board unanimously adopted an amendment to the rate plan ordinance that members said they hoped could alleviate some of those concerns. The provision requires the revenues derived from the increase to be placed in a "restricted, separate capital improvement fund," according to CCWD attorney Matthew Weber, and a four-fifths vote of the board to take funds from that account for a different purpose.

Dan Lear y of Arnold said the district showed a lack of financial responsibility at the outset of the meeting but also thanked the board following the vote for showing signs it had listened to concerns.

"You showed compassion," Leary said. "You showed caring."