Despite the wellspring of a significant vocal opposition, the Nevada Irrigation District board of directors unanimously approved a resolution that will raise water rates by 6 percent annually over a five-year period — meaning water rates will be as much as 33 percent higher five years from now.
“If we continue on the current path, this district will be bankrupt by 2020,” said NID Director Nick Wilcox. “It is in everyone’s best interest to have a strong and vibrant water district.”
During the public hearing, 44 speakers participated, five of whom spoke twice. Many gave impassioned pleas to the directors about the hardships they continue to face as they attempt to eke out livings in a troubled local economy. “Have some sympathy for us,” said Francine Strum, a resident of Penn Valley.
The rate increase is expected to amount to $38 per year for the typical NID treated water user, according to an NID news release. A family of four using 3,700 cubic feet of water would see a two-month water bill increase of $6.37, from $105.86 to $112.83 for the two-month billing cycle.
Several of the speakers were seniors living on a fixed income who said the 6 percent increase was excessive, as their Social Security checks typically only increase by 1 percent annually, if that.
Even more speakers professed ties to the agricultural industry and many said such a dramatic increase in prices will drive them out of business. Officials said during Wednesday’s meeting that the increase would amount to an additional $479 annually for the typical agricultural user, who will have a higher demand for NID water during the kind of dry weather patterns that have persisted.
“A rate increase on top of a drought serves as a double whammy,” said Nevada County Agricultural Commissioner Jeff Pylman. “Ranchers have to face tough economic choices, including whether to buy hay, cull their herds and pay for the labor costs associated with these practices.”
Directors said they were constrained by dwindling revenues.
Director Nancy Weber did introduce a provision that states the board will review district operations annually and attempt to minimize the rate increases.
Robert Harris, who said he was in the agriculture business, said NID had less of a revenue problem and more of an expenditure problem — a sentiment echoed repeatedly throughout the public hearing.
NID General Manager Rem Scherzinger said the district has been deficit-spending since 2000 and has made dramatic cuts. Any further reductions would alter the configuration of the district and its ability to deliver service to its customers, he said.
NID is mandated by a California state law — passed in 1996 as a result of Proposition 218 — that stipulates the district can be prevented from passing water rate increases if 50 percent plus one of the customer base provides a written letter of protest. On Wednesday, the standing-room-only crowd that overflowed into the hallway and foyer of the building filed protests that amounted to 342 letters, a paltry amount compared to the more than 15,000 letters that would have been required to prevent the rate hike.
“It is highly unlikely you will get it,” said board chairman John Drew during the proceedings, adding that those in attendance who are frustrated by the lack of protection afforded by the law should seek to alter the law.
However, many of those in attendance complained about the perceived lack of due process.
“It feels like you were counting on us not to be able to get enough protests,” said Darryl Sanford.
Sue Hoek also complained about the process, which included mailing letters to customers, telling them they must file a written protest if they were opposed to rate hike.
“It just felt like there was a lack of transparency,” she said. “I question whether this was even the appropriate venue. People should have a better idea of what was going on here.”
Before passing the resolution that imposed the rate increase on both users of treated water and those who use raw water — about 31,000 customers — the directors vowed to continue to find ways to control costs.
Many people in attendance, and several who own small ranching operations struggling to remain viable on homesteads that date back centuries, expressed frustration that the comparatively rich water purveyor, with a fleet of new-looking vehicles, will be bolstering revenues on their backs.
“I am a private entity,” said Robert Harris. “My business is based on revenue. If revenues are not set to grow then you don’t increase expenditures.”
“Six percent a year is excessive,” added Francine Sturm. “You should run a budget like we do. If you can’t afford steak, eat hamburger.”
To contact Staff Writer Matthew Renda, email email@example.com or call 530-477-4239.