Water forum presents new plans for the city

Portola City Manager Ian Kaiser addresses the public at a water forum Wednesday, July 17. He said water rates will continue to rise significantly unless the city comes up with a better plan. The forum provided chances for members of the public to offer their opinions and talk about solutions to the water rate issue. Photo by Carolyn Carter
Carolyn Carter

  “Do you see what is going on?” said Portola City Council Member Juliana Mark to a Memorial Hall filled with people. “Do you see the change? If you see the change, it’s coming from council, to management and staff, to you.”

  Mark’s statement was reinforced with applause from the more than 50 community members who spent Wednesday, July 17, with the council and the new city manager, Ian Kaiser, discussing the water rate issue that burdens Portola.

  Kaiser orchestrated the public forum by calling for suggestions and solutions to the water issue. Kaiser explained that over the past two weeks he has been ardently studying the water dilemma. He looked over the rate study that was done in 2011 to better understand how the rates will increase and why.

  “We discovered over the next five years your rates are going to go up 173 percent,” said Kaiser. “Rates are going up all over the country, but 173 percent — I have a problem with that.”

  According to Kaiser, the rate study was not accurate and it did not take different variables into consideration. For example, Kaiser said Lake Davis was supposed to be a potable water source for the town, but the treatment plant at the lake is in disrepair. The rate study took the price of running the treatment plant into consideration when deciding the rate increase even though it is not running, and no one knows how much it would cost to repair.

  “In my opinion the rate study wasn’t equitable. The poor are subsidizing the rich,” he said. “A tier system is a lot more equitable.”

  Kaiser presented the tier system as a way to prevent customers from paying more for water than they are using. He said 46 percent of people in the city use less than 5,000 gallons of water a month, but pay for much more than that. It would offer different base rates, which would charge a certain amount for different water usage.

  If customers went over their base rate they would have to pay extra, but they could choose a plan that best suits their needs.

  “Why didn’t anybody think about this two or three years ago? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist,” he said.

  The public offered ideas and comments concerning the water problem to the council and staff. Community Service Officer Leah Turner wrote them down in the front of the room on a large notepad.

  Audience members got up and spoke about the excessive amounts of chlorine in the water, and others talked about the fact that Lake Davis was supposed to be the town’s water supply but now no one has access to it.

  Public Works Official Todd Roberts was at the meeting and he addressed some of the questions and statements. He said that state regulations demand certain things of the city, and it is trying to adhere to them.

  “The town had no say,” said Kaiser. “If we have to go a little higher we have to do it as a town, and say what is going on here.”

  The city engineer, Dan Bastian, was also at the meeting. He explained that when Lake Davis was poisoned to get rid of invasive pike in 1998 and again in 2008, the city was required to drill wells within the city limits as alternate drinking sources. However, because the city sits on volcanic rock, there is a risk of high arsenic levels in the well water and the state demands the city have an alternate water source.

  “If we were to use that water (Davis), we would have to treat that water,” said Bastian.

  According to Kaiser, the Lake Davis treatment plant dominates 40 percent of the city’s water rates, and is one of the main contributors to the rise in rates.

  “We don’t know how much it is going to cost to fix that thing. If it is a design flaw we have to take it back to the state because we are not going to pay for a design flaw,” said Kaiser, and his statement was met with applause from the public.

  Various ideas arose during the public comment. One person suggested using the graywater from Lake Davis to water the lawns, but Roberts said the infrastructure would not allow that. Another person suggested going to the county to ask it to fix the treatment plant.

  Community member Larry Douglas suggested combining the Grizzly Lake Community Services District with Portola’s system.

  “That topic of consolidation is on the board,” Kaiser said, responding to Douglas. “This is not just about fixing the rates. It’s about an economic building environment.”

  Council Member Michelle Gault posed a new topic by asking how the city can help low-income people who cannot afford the water rates.

  Community member Jeanne Dansby suggested community members donate their time to the city to help pay off water bills, but Kaiser said the city has to be receiving funds in order to meet its obligations to the state. One audience member recommended a low-cost care program for lower-income families like electric companies offer.

  Kaiser said because the city didn’t have the staff to determine what constitutes low income and who qualifies, he recommended turning it over to the Community Development Center, which is qualified to make those deductions.

  “I’m in a huge learning curve here,” said Kaiser. “I think we’re going forward and I think that is a lot.”

  As of now, Kaiser announced there would be no rate changes in next month’s bill. He is still looking over the system availability charge, and the rate study. He said he is looking into conducting another rate study that more accurately applies to the current state of the city.

  “We are changing the culture of the town,” he said. “We need to move forward. We don’t need to look on the past. We have to have a new plan.”

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