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Statement: The city of Oceanside plans to “Apply a 7.5% across-the-board increase to the City’s internal fixed and variable water rates,” according to a public notice it mailed to water customers.

Determination: Misleading

Analysis: When water departments plan to raise rates, they have to let their customers know the price hike is coming. That gives customers the chance to protest the proposal.

That notice is required by Proposition 218, a taxpayer-friendly amendment to the state Constitution. But the amendment doesn’t say precisely how those notices must be worded, which is why some water departments’ announcements are easier to understand than others.

The notice from Oceanside, which was mailed several weeks ago, is an example of how the letters can have the opposite effect of what’s intended – the notice could leave customers more confused about what’s happening to their bills.

The city’s notice to customers is a four-page letter. The first page dryly explains the purpose of the letter.

The next two pages are filled with super convoluted charts. These charts lay out the different charges customers currently pay, and what they would be paying if the new rates are approved. This could be helpful, if you can make heads or tails of all the different charts.

Then there’s the final page, which summarizes the whole shebang. It says the city’s plan is to “Apply a 7.5% across-the-board increase to the City’s internal fixed and variable water rates.”

You might think, based on that statement, that Oceanside’s rates are going up by 7.5 percent. I did. So did one of our readers. So did the San Diego Union-Tribune, which said last month that the city is “proposing a 7.5 percent across the board increase” for water customers.

But the proposed increase is actually worse for residents’ wallets. Oceanside’s rates are really going up 18.9 percent, a spokeswoman for the water department said in an email.

That’s because there are a bunch of different charges that are not included in that 7.5 percent figure, including some costs that are beyond Oceanside’s control, namely the price of the water it buys from the San Diego County Water Authority. Oceanside may not set those numbers, but its water customers still have to pay them.

In any event, to figure out what the new price of water would be, most people would need to get out a pencil and paper and do the math themselves.

Here’s something some water departments do on your bill: They show the price you’re paying to them, so they can keep up their water system, but then they separate out the price you’re paying so they can buy water from other, larger systems. In San Diego County, every urban water system gets its water from the San Diego County Water Authority, which in turn gets most of its water from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

When water departments show the County Water Authority charges and the Metropolitan charges on your bill, they’re trying to get you to stop blaming them for your high rates – they want you to blame the County Water Authority and Metropolitan.

But here’s what happened on Oceanside’s rate notice: They told you how much their own rates would be going up, 7.5 percent, but they failed to make clear how much the County Water Authority and Metropolitan’s rates were also going up. Those extra charges ranged from 9 percent to 47 percent, according to Oceanside. Add those increases into your bill, and you’re actually paying over 18 percent more, not just 7.5 percent more.

One VOSD reader figured that out and emailed: “The notice seems deliberately intended to be hard to understand, with a dizzying number of tables, and no explanation of the bottom-line impact on a customer.”

We agree. The notice – and in particular, the statement that rates will experience a 7.5 percent increase – is Misleading.

Other water agencies also release notices that are hard to understand, but they sometimes do a tad bit more to help customers. Some water districts lump all these charges together so you don’t have to add their charges and the County Water Authority’s charges and Metropolitan’s charges just to figure out your bill.

Some districts also give an example of what a typical customer’s bill would be before and after the increase. That’s one good way to help customers understand what’s going on. Oceanside’s letter does not do that.

The city of San Diego’s notice to customers does have that sort-of helpful chart, with an example of what a typical customer will pay. That chart shows what a typical single-family household will pay if its 9 percent rate increase is approved – about $7 more each month. (The chart doesn’t show what the typical customer will pay five years from now, after another few rate increases its plans also go into effect. But that’s a story for another day.)

Still, San Diego’s notice to customers nearly had problems of its own, before City Council members stepped in and complained about a draft of that notice they saw before it was sent out. The water department had originally planned to send out a mailing that said “Notice of Public Hearing” and called the increases by an Orwellian name, “adjustments.”

Councilwoman Lorie Zapf said the city had “buried the lead,” a journalism term for hiding the most newsworthy element of a story. Councilman Todd Gloria said the use of the word “adjustment” was “disingenuous.”

City water officials, thankfully, changed the mailing to read, “Notice of Public Hearing for Proposed Water Rate Increases.”

It’s still a complicated document and something of a pain in the neck to figure out, but at least you know what the point is.

Ry Rivard

Ry Rivard was formerly a reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about water and power.

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