The embattled Atwater City Council took an important step last week in trying to come to grips with its budget disaster by moving ahead with a plan to try to significantly increase water rates.
The city has a general fund deficit of more than $3 million, plus a $1.5 million negative balance in its combined water funds. If the rate hikes go through, it would be the first time water rates have been increased since 1992.
This is just one in a series of actions the council will face in the coming weeks because of the budget crisis, including laying off as much as a third of the city's work force and possibly even declaring bankruptcy bad options made worse by deferred action, poor judgment and a lack of leadership.
And now everyone is going to have to ante up. The politicians, the administration, the employees and, yes, even the residents.
Folks in Atwater are going to have to start paying more for the services they receive. Going a decade or two without fee increases might be easy on the pocketbook in the short term, but eventually the bill comes due and that time is now.
For Atwater residents, the bill for water could cost 150 percent more per month over five years. That sounds like a lot, but the amount that Atwater residents pay $15.65 for flat-rate households and $28.15 for metered water for 50,000 gallons per month are some of the lowest in California.
According to a 2011 statewide survey by Raftelis Financial Consultants, water in California ranges from $11 a month in Twentynine Palms to $180 per month in San Bruno. Modesto's average bill is $34.20 per month and Merced's is $70.28.
Even with the 150 percent increase, Atwater households' water bills, whether for flat rates ($39.12 per month) or metered rates (about $70.37 for 50,000 gallons) would still be a bargain compared to the rest of the state.
The plan being considered by the city would spread out the increase over five years. Atwater residents will still get a good deal on water. Rejecting or fighting a rate increase would only make the budget situation worse and push the city closer to the fiscal abyss.