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Council hikes water rate

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Seven percent boost after 10 years of being the same

By Roger Snodgrass

Precious water got a little more valuable Tuesday, as the county council approved a water rate increase by a 5-1 decision.

Even with an increase of about 7 percent, the rate remains less than it stood 10 years ago, when water rates were last changed. At that time, the rate was reduced from $4.32 per thousand gallons to $3.72 and has been maintained at that level since then.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the commodity rate was raised 23 cents to $3.95, still 37 cents lower than it was 10 years ago.

Another component of the water rate has to do with a monthly meter charge, based on the meter sizes, which range from 5/8 inch to 8 inches. These rates were also increased by about the same amount. Together, according to a summary prepared by the Department of Public Utilities, the impact on a family using 10,000 gallons of water a month with a 1-inch meter would be $3.78 a month. The raise will provide an annual revenue increase to the department of approximately $280,000.

In a brief presentation, Utilities Manager John Arrowsmith said Los Alamos water rates compared very favorably to both Santa Fe and Española, but was more expensive than Albuquerque

“Our goal is just to cover the cost,” he said.

The rate increase was based on a running 10-year forecast and how much needs to put in each year. He said as a rule of thumb, a 1.5 percent inflation rate is factored in, along with cost projections.

Council Chair Michael Wismer asked about the lower rates in Albuquerque and whether it was due to lower consumption.

Counter-intuitively, Arrowsmith said, “To the extent we can conserve, the unit cost goes up. If we encourage conservation, the only way for rates not to go up in the future is not to drill wells.”

The reason is that the main costs are in infrastructure which isn’t reduced by using less water.

“We took over a system that’s 50 years old,” he said. “We’ll drill our first (replacement) well in 2012. We’re replacing water lines.”

“There’s still a lot of development in Albuquerque,” Arrowsmith said. “There may be conservation per individual household but the number of households is increasing.”

Their savings has to do with using less water over a larger number of homes, but using less water without growth in Los Alamos would cost more.

Los Alamos resident Jim Redman criticized the increase for that reason.

“We’re not making any savings here,” he said. “A good job conserving water caused a huge increase in the sewer rates. I would encourage the county to look for those savings.”  He said the service charges paid by residences subsidized big businesses.

“Water is indeed the currency of the west,” Councilor Ralph Phelps said, moving approval of the increase. “Here in Los Alamos, we produce our own water, so we do need to protect our water supply.”

“No one likes a rate increase,” Councilor Robert Gibson said, seconding the motion.  “This increase is still less than the rate of inflation or decline of the dollar. In terms of real value it is not an increase.”

Councilor Vincent Chiravalle voted against the measure, saying that people who needed the water for their livelihood were going to see much more than a 7 percent increase and he felt the projections were unnecessarily padded.

“What seals the deal for me is not the fact that we haven’t had a rate increase since 1999,” Wismer said, but rather his confidence in the managers. “The utilities department is managed for success. I stand behind your organization and what you have set up,” he said.

Councilor Nona Bowman was absent due to illness.