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Mayor Jerry Sanders proposed hikes to the city’s water and sewer customers Tuesday, arguing that four years of gradual increases are needed in order to pay for legally required construction projects for both systems.

Under the proposal, which Sanders plans to forward to the City Council in January, users of the city’s sewer system would be paying 35 percent more in four years and Water Department customers’ bills would be nearly 29 percent more.

If approved, the first wave of rate increases would be reflected in sewer bills by May and in water bills by July.

City officials said there was no other choice but to raise rates in order to comply with orders by federal and state regulators. The city’s settlement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency hinges on improvements to the wastewater collection system that are required under the Clean Water Act, and the Water Department must undergo upgrades in order to comply with standards set by the California Department of Health.

The city’s efforts to comply with both orders have suffered from a lack of political will as well as to the city’s inability to borrow money in the public markets, Sanders said. He has been trying to a lay out a case for the rate increases since his State of the Speech address in January.

The postponements (the state’s order against the Water Department was handed down in 1997) have made the requirements more expensive, he said, noting that a combined $1.4 billion is needed for the upgrades.

“We’ve ignored these issues for a considerable amount of time, and unless we address them now, they’ll only get worse,” Sanders said.

The timetable for rate changes to sewer bills includes 8.75 percent increases in fiscal years 2008 and 2009, and 7 percent increases in fiscal years 2010 and 2011. The increases will allow the city to replace 45 miles of sewer line every year as opposed to the 30 miles currently being laid under a partial settlement of the EPA’s case.

For water rates, 6.5 percent increases will be made each year over the same four-year period. The new revenue will allow the city to replace 10 miles of pipes every year while upgrading the water-cleansing systems at the Otay, Alvarado and Miramar treatment plants.

Sanders said he was also proposing a yearly review of the water and wastewater agencies to ensure that ratepayer funds were being used appropriately, a safeguard he held up in light of past accusations that water bill receipts were helping fund other city departments. The city also raised eyebrows when it was discovered that residents were subsidizing the sewer costs of large businesses, a practice that drew a lawsuit that the city has tentatively settled.

Annual reviews of the systems will be presented to a board that Sanders wants to create as part of his fee proposal.

In addition, a certified audit of the Water Department and Metropolitan Wastewater would be conducted every three years under Sanders’ plan.

The City Council is expected to open up a 45-day public comment period in January before it weighs the increases in late February. Sanders has also scheduled a series of town hall meetings around town to educate the public on the proposal. The city’s Public Utilities Advisory Committee will also hold hearings.

We’ll post the times, dates and locations of those meetings shortly.

EVAN McLAUGHLIN

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