Residents bemoan drought surcharges (August 30, 2015)

Ranchos customers claim high water bills despite reducing consumption

APPLE VALLEY — Dozens of Apple Valley Ranchos Water customers — some of whom claim they’ve reduced water usage by more than 50 percent — say they are outraged by their bi-monthly water bills, which now include a drought surcharge in addition to other surcharges.

The town has received a huge spike in complaints and emails, according to Councilman Art Bishop, and council members addressed the issue Tuesday evening at the Town Council’s regular meeting by directing questions to Apple Valley Ranchos Executive Vice President Lee Jordan during his public comment.

Bishop asked Jordan which Ranchos customers received the drought surcharge.

The only citizens in Apple Valley who are paying a (drought) surcharge are citizens who are using over the allotment, Jordan said, which is set based on the conservation target reduction from the actual average residential use in 2013.

The allotment referred to by Jordan is 16 units (approximately 12,000 gallons) per month, according to Apple Valley Ranchos General Manager Tony Penna.

Because Ranchos’ billing is bimonthly, the allotment stands at 32 units for two months of consumption, a number that — at the very least — frustrates some residents.

The way they’re allocating water doesn’t make sense, Ranchos’ customer Gary Cox told the Daily Press. Somebody that’s on an acre can use the same amount as someone on 15 acres.

Cox said he’s reduced his water use by 47 percent since last year, but still received a $178 drought surcharge because he used 99 units of water — well over the 32-unit allotment. In August of 2014, Cox was using 171 units.

Cox received an additional surcharge of $198, as well as another surcharge for what he called tier three usage.

Cox’s argument is that residents who don’t have lawns or trees to water are allotted the same amount as residents who live on larger properties with lawns and trees who see it as their right to not let their landscaping perish.

So some people can use more water and other people will be selling their houses, Cox said.

Following Gov. Jerry Brown’s April 1 water reduction mandate, Ranchos implemented Stage Two of its California Public Utilities Commission-approved Water Shortage Contingency Plan, according to Penna.

Failure to comply with this mandate can result in fines of up to $10,000 a day, Penna said in a written statement.

Stage Two implemented the drought surcharge and 32-unit allotment.

Mayor Pro Tem Barb Stanton called the surcharge a penalty during Tuesday’s meeting and asked Jordan to explain why Ranchos moved directly into Stage Two.

It went right to Stage 2 because we had a long way to get to, Jordan said. We have a lot of customers at Apple Valley Ranchos who use a large amount of water, substantially more water than the average, and most of it is outdoor use.

David Christman is one of those customers. Christman told the Daily Press he’s not willing to let his landscape vegetation die so he expects to pay more. Christman did reduce his water use by 22 percent, but still used 150 units.

I can’t let my trees die because of Apple Valley Ranchos, Christman said. I expect a higher water bill. I’ve gotten over that. But to conserve and still get hit with surcharges? They win either way.

Christman’s complaint is specific to what Councilman Scott Nassif called a compound problem.

Some of the bills being brought to me have previous surcharges and then they have the drought surcharges, Nassif said. The previous surcharges are because of previous reductions for revenue loss. This new surcharge is going to go against future advice letters or surcharges possibly.

Penna told the Daily Press that Ranchos Water does not receive any additional revenue from drought surcharges.

Monies received from drought surcharges are used to offset other customer fees, Penna said.

Still, some Ranchos customers balk at the severity of their water bills.

Apple Valley resident Scott Wolff told the Daily Press he’s using far less water than he had in the previous two years, yet his water bill has never seen a decrease.

I’ve taken out 2,000 square feet of grass in the last couple years, Wolff said, but it doesn’t make a difference because they raise the rates.

Only 25 percent of Ranchos’ residential customers are using water above their allotment, Penna said. He said 10 percent of customers account for 80 percent of the drought surcharges.

High water users will indeed have high water bills, Penna said. We are working diligently with these customers to inform them on how they can better manage their water use.

Many of the complaints the town has received are specific to customers who have reduced consumption but still receive the drought surcharges because their usage exceeds the 32-unit allotment.

The residents of our community have done everything — as all the residents of the High Desert — they can to reduce their water usage, Bishop told Jordan.

Christman agrees.

The bottom line is my $969.35 water bill by AV Ranchos would have been $305.47 in Hesperia, $290.50 in Victorville, and $218.50 in Palm Springs, Christman said in a letter to the editor.

Source: Matthew Cabe, Desert Dispatch