Tuesday, April 21, 2015
C.A. Says Tiered Water Rates Are Unconstitutional
From Staff and Wire Service Reports
The Fourth District Court of Appeal court ruled yesterday that San Juan Capistrano’s tiered water rates are unconstitutional, potentially dealing a blow to agencies statewide that have used the pricing structure to encourage people to save water.
Div. Three upheld a Superior Court judge’s decision that found that charging bigger water users incrementally higher rates violates Proposition 218, an initiative that prohibits government agencies from charging more than the cost of a service.
That measure, “requires public water agencies to calculate the actual costs of providing water at various levels of usage,” Justice William Bedsworth wrote. “...While tiered, or inclined rates that go up progressively in relation to usage are perfectly consonant with [Proposition 218], the tiers must still correspond to the actual cost or providing service at a given of usage.”
The ruling comes shortly after Gov. Jerry Brown issued drought orders that called on local water agencies to implement tiered water pricing to help save water. About two-thirds of water districts in the state use tiered water pricing, and the ruling was being closely watched to see how it might apply beyond San Juan Capistrano.
That city charged nearly four times as much per unit of water for the highest users to encourage conservation. Residents complained the higher rates were arbitrary and unfair.
“We feel vindicated and feel the constitution was upheld,” said attorney Benjamin Benumof, who represented San Juan residents. “It’s one for the record books.”
Brown was critical, and said the state’s lawyers were considering a bid for further review.
“The practical effect of the court’s decision is to put a straitjacket on local government at a time when maximum flexibility is needed,” the governor said in a statement. “My policy is and will continue to be: employ every method possible to ensure water is conserved across California.”
San Juan Capistrano’s 2010 rate schedule charged customers $2.47 per unit—748 gallons, or 100 cubic feet—of water in the first tier and up to $9.05 per unit in the fourth.
The city failed to show how those costs were tied directly to more expensive sources of water, the appellate court ruled.
“Nothing in our record tells us why, for example, they could not figure out the costs of given usage levels that require City Water to tap more expensive supplies, and then bill users in those tiers accordingly,” Bedsworth wrote.
After Superior Court Judge Gregory Munoz declared San Juan Capistrano’s rate structure invalid in 2013, the city flattened its tiers and tied charges more directly to water costs while it awaited the appellate court decision.
Tiered rate structures reduce water use over time by up to 15 percent, according to a 2014 study by UC Riverside researchers.
Amicus briefs were filed in the case by the Association of California Water Agencies, League of California Cities, California State Association of Counties, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Planning and Conservation League on behalf of the city, and by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Foundation and Mesa Water District on behalf of the plaintiff.
The case is Capistrano Taxpayers Association, Inc. v. City of San Juan Capistrano, G048969.
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