The city of San Diego plans to raise water rates by 40 percent in the next five years – and you can stop it.

So long as you rally about 140,000 of your friends.

Over the past 25 years, water rates have more than doubled for most customers in San Diego County – costs are going up much faster than overall inflation. Now, even as we’re all using less water, rates will continue to climb for most county residents. Customers can shut down these plans, if they really organize.

A 1996 amendment to the state Constitution, known as Proposition 218, gives water, sewer and trash customers the power to stop rate increases. About a dozen water agencies in San Diego County have recently approved price increases, are trying to raise rates right now or are likely to in the near future.

Each time a public water agency wants to raise rates, it has to send its customers a notice. Customers then have a chance to protest the rate hike. To do so, they must file a formal protest with the agency trying to raise rates. If a majority of the affected property owners or tenants files a protest, the rate increase is stopped in its tracks.

This has happened in California, but only in smaller water districts, said Tim Bittle, director of legal affairs at the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.

Part of the reason Prop. 218 protests have only worked in smaller districts is simple: It’s easier to organize a few hundred people than tens of thousands.

The other reason may be political.

Bill Condrashoff, a member of the Ratepayer Protection Alliance, has helped stop several water increases in Amador County in Northern California. He said rural customers are more conservative than city customers, although the group’s campaigns have not relied exclusively on Republicans.

“Everybody has to help, you can’t just go for the Republicans, because if you’re going to get half – you need to get half – you need some from both sides,” Condrashoff said.

In San Diego, the water rate increase is internally contentious and has caused consternation among members of the City Council, but the San Diego County Taxpayers Association said last week it supports the increase. That makes any sort of major campaign against the increase unlikely.

A successful campaign to block the rate increase would be hard if not impossible at this point. The deadline to file a formal protest is Nov. 17.

The city recently sent out notices to the owners and tenants of 288,379 pieces of affected property. The means the owners or tenants of 144,190 prices of property would need to file a protest to block the rate increase. (Some people own more than one parcel, so have more than one protest.)

The city makes protesting relatively easy. Its announcement to customers included a protest form. All a person needs to do is fill it out and send it in, or deliver it to the city clerk. The protests cannot be emailed or faxed, the city says.

Condrashoff said he’s dealt with water agencies that are making it harder to vote: They don’t provide a protest form and ask for very specific information, like the assessor’s parcel number or a person’s water account number.

Several other smaller water districts in San Diego County are also currently proposing rate increases, including the Santa Fe Irrigation District and the city of Oceanside’s water department. Their customers also have the chance to block those proposals.

In general, water rates across the state are going up because customers are using less water. Water departments have all sorts of ongoing costs that don’t go away even if they sell less water, so they have to charge more for what they do sell.

What happens if customers successfully block a rate increase?

It depends on who you ask.

Kurt Kidman, a spokesman for the city of San Diego’s water department, said the department would bring back a new proposal to raise rates. The city has a study that shows a rate increase is necessary for a number of reasons.

Condrashoff, the taxpayer activist, said he’s seen water agencies react two different ways: On the one hand, he said they try to “stack the deck before they start the fight” by making it harder to protest, or they’ll just raise other taxes in a way that avoids the Prop. 218 process. On the other hand, he said, water agencies are likely to be more conservative, by cutting costs or asking for more modest rate increases.

“They are much more careful and they are a little less aggressive about saying, ‘We need tons of money,’” Condrashoff said.

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

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