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Los Alamos County Councilors spent more time approving a modest sewer rate increase than they did accepting a moderate reduction in the natural gas rate.
At the end of the debate Tuesday night, both ordinances were adopted by a substantial majority, but not without scrutiny.
One ordinance proposed a $150 a year cutback on an average gas bill, while the other sought a $50 yearly increase for a typical residential sewer bill. The bottom-line, $100 a year combined savings for the customer, carried the day.
Councilor Vincent Chiravalle and a few members of the public opposed the ordinances, but the final vote was 6-1 in favor.
John Arrowsmith, the county utilities manager explained the reasons for requesting an annual increase of $300,000, cautioning that utility funds must stand alone and pay for themselves.
Los Alamos sewer rates are higher than other communities in the region and the state because the terrain is more complicated, he said. A chart compiled by the utility department showed Santa Fe in 2008 with a $22.05 average monthly bill and Española, $31.70. Those charges were compared to Los Alamos at $41.10 in 2008, which was going up to $45.24 under the proposed increase.
Arrowsmith said the higher rates were largely due to the fact that Los Alamos needed two sewer plants, with the newest one having come on line two years ago. The system requires 27 lift stations to pump sewage to a higher elevation, because of the ups and downs of the plateau. There are additional maintenance expenses with a new more sophisticated video system, he said, but that has also provided some reassurance about the health of the infrastructure, suggesting major repairs may be unnecessary for awhile.
Chiravalle opposed the rate hike as unjustified and said he thought there should be some way for the county to cover additional costs rather than transfer them to the customers.
County Councilor Robert Gibson and others said there were legal issues about subsidizing utilities.
“We all love living on the side of the mountain,” Gibson said. “One of the costs is that infrastructure is higher than in many other places.”
Council Chair Michael Wheeler said he agreed with Gibson and cautioned against “the slippery slope to commingle our general fund with our utilities.”
Councilors Nona Bowman and Sharon Stover both said they voted against the measure when it was introduced previously. This version seemed a better solution.
Council Vice Chair Michael Wismer underlined a decisive factor for the majority. “You’ve justified this rate increase,” he said.
Councilor Phelps complemented the utility department on its planning and said the quality of the system has increased.
With the sewer rate increase approved, the rate decrease for natural gas consumption was not a hard sell.
Arrowsmith said the current abundance of supplies and the weak demand because of the economic downturn had depressed gas prices. The typical residential customer in Los Alamos uses about 72 therms per month. With a 17 percent reduction, the average household bill would drop by about $12 a month. Larger users would see a decrease of nearly 24 percent.
The sticking point for Chiravalle and for some members of the public was an increase in the monthly service charge, from $6.43 to $9.46 for small meters and from $19.46 to $28.50 for large meters.
“A 48 percent increase in service charges is too much,” Chiravalle said.
Arrowsmith said the service charges had not been raised since the 80s.
“This is considerably less than inflation,” Gibson said. “We try to make the cost cover the service.”
During the public comment on the ordinance Pat Max criticized the delay in reducing the gas prices, causing an unnecessary burden on consumers during an especially cold October. It’s been known since August that the commodity prices for gas were going down, she said.
She also criticized the ordinance process that required councilors to vote for a single measure that tied rates for both commodities and service charges together.
Chiravalle said, “It’s like giving someone a cookie with one hand and with the other we’re taking away their lunch.”
Jim Redmond, also providing public comment, objected to the fact that lowering the gas rate was a disincentive to resource conservation.
“You are sending the wrong message,” he said, driving the pricing scheme the wrong way.”
The motion passed 6-1, with Chiravalle opposed.
In other business, council took two rounds of voting to choose nine residents to serve on a County Charter Review Citizen’s Steering Committee. There were 15 letters of interest submitted.
The following were selected:
Christine Chandler, Los Alamos County Councilor, 1997-2000, Los Alamos Charter Review Committee Vice-Chair, 1994-95;
Harry Ettinger, laboratory retiree, health and safety consultant, 48-year-resident;
Deborah F. Gill, president of the Community Health Council and member of the Los Alamos County Municipal Building Site Committee;
James H. Hall, Los Alamos County Councilor, 2005-2009;
John Hopkins, former chair of the Citizen’s Review Panel, former LANL associate director and 50-year -resident;
David Izraelevitz, former chairman of the Planning and Zoning Commission;
Robert Pelak, secretary of the Los Alamos Governmental Review Initiative;
Morrie Pongratz, 14 years on the county council and four years on the school board; and
Laurance B. Warner, retired LANL scientist, chairman of county Environmental
The committee is tasked with reviewing the County Charter and recommending additions, deletions and clarifications that could be the subject of a referendum in November 2010.