Almanac

News - April 3, 2013

Sewer rates to jump for Woodside customers

by Dave Boyce

Woodside is semi-rural and most of the town's 2,200 properties use septic tanks in lieu of sewers, but for some 157 properties that do not, the annual cost for sewer service will rise about 100 percent for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

It's the first rate increase in 18 years for most of these properties and the new rates are consistent with a steady 5.5 percent annual increase, according to an engineering study commissioned by the town.

When the mayor opened the floor to public comment on the proposed rates at the March 26 Town Council meeting, Judith Carlsen of Canada Road said she understood that 18 years at unchanging rates is "ridiculous. Of course it should be going up accordingly." But, she added: "It hurts me. It's difficult for me and probably I'm one of the minority in this town. This big jump is hurtful."

For properties along Canada Road that use sewers and are in the Town Center Sewer Assessment District, the annual rate will rise to $747 from the current $359, an increase of 108 percent. In five years, the town's projections show those customers paying $1,353. Residential and non-residential properties in the district along downtown Woodside Road are similarly affected.

"We tried to figure out ways to ease the burden on people (but) we couldn't," Town Engineer Paul Nagengast said in an interview.

The current rates, according to a staff report, "do not pay for the existing cost of service to maintain the existing sewer system and for the conveyance costs" to transport and treat the sewage. Nor are rates at a level sufficient for a proposed upgrade to the 30-year-old treatment plant in Redwood City, the report says. The town's sewer district needs about $650,000 in capital improvements.

"I think it's healthy to look at these (rates) again in five years," Mr. Nagengast said. "When (the capital improvements) are paid off, can we lower the rate?"

Alex Handlers of Berkeley-based Bartle Wells Associates, which did the engineering study, said the system overall includes one very old eight-mile section of sewer main in Redwood City that, unlike modern sewers, has "thousands of joints." That upgrade will run into hundreds of millions of dollars, Mr. Handlers said.

A reserve needed

The town has a sewer fund reserve for emergencies, but it's been tapped over the years for about $500,000 and is projected to dip below $100,000 soon and stay there for several years. Councilman Dave Burow said he was ashamed of allowing what was, in effect, a subsidy to ratepayers. "The town manager wasn't dealing with this issue," he said, referring to the administration of Susan George. "Shame on us. We screwed it up."

Redwood City had been "very slow" in providing information to Woodside about sewer system plans, Mr. Nagengast said. "It's really coming into play now that they need the money."

"I think your comment was a little bit harsh on the previous administration," Councilwoman Deborah Gordon said in response to Mr. Burow. "It's not completely out of the blue."

In an interview, Ms. Gordon said the subject of sewers came up occasionally. "It wasn't that it was forgotten or pushed under the rug. It probably was not at the top of anyone's list," she said. "We all deserve some criticism."

As to Mr. Burow's comment: "I just think it was way too personal, too attacking and too harsh."

Asked to respond, Mr. Burow acknowledged that he is a blunt speaker. "I wasn't trying to make a broad statement about Susan George," he said. "I think she was a terrific town manager and did a great job. ... I'd be the first to sing Susan's praises in many other areas." But no one's perfect, he added. "I'm also blaming myself and my fellow council members for not looking more closely at the numbers."

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