Consultant recommends cutting sewer connection fee at Santa Maria plant

District General Manager David Barnum talks about the steps the district has taken to reduce costs for the Santa Maria wastewater treatment plant. Sentinel photos/Karen Brainard
District General Manager David Barnum talks about the steps the district has taken to reduce costs for the Santa Maria wastewater treatment plant. Sentinel photos/Karen Brainard

By Karen Brainard

Ramona Municipal Water District’s controversial  $20,000 sewer connection and mitigation fee that has been blamed for stifling business growth in town could be reduced by a third — to $13,090.

Residents and business owners will have a chance to comment on the proposed change at a public hearing Tuesday, Jan. 28, at 2 p.m. in the Ramona Community Center, 434 Aqua Lane.

The $20,000 per equivalent dwelling unit (EDU) fee was charged to new customers in the Santa Maria Sewer Service Area that serves the downtown and western portions of Ramona, and to those seeking business expansion or a change in use that would increase discharge into the sewer system. One EDU is 200 gallons per day of wastewater discharge.

“I think this will be a good thing for Ramona,” Darrell Beck, board president, said Jan. 14 after a presentation on the recommended reduction.

“I think this is huge,” Ramona Realtor Carol Fowler told the board. “It will stimulate growth.”

Alex Handlers of Bartle Wells Associates, the consultant the district hired last year to conduct a Santa Maria fee and rate study, presented the findings to the board.

The $20,000 fee was a combination of the district’s $5,432 connection fee and a $14,568 mitigation fee to help pay for upgrades and planned expansion of the Santa Maria treatment plant. The three-phased project was estimated to cost $34 million.

In October 2010, RMWD held a public workshop to explain the reasoning behind the fee after a Ramona woman was told she would have to pay about $32,000 in sewer fees to open a yogurt shop.

Since then, the district has undergone various studies and determined that increased capacity at the plant is not necessary at this time — one reason being that growth has slowed in the community — and cut improvement costs in half. A Santa Maria master plan, developed in 2012, addresses the plant’s  aging treatment facilities and operational challenges and identifies $16.5 million worth of needed capital improvements.

“This is a step in a long process this board and previous boards have been taking for a long time now,” RMWD General Manager David Barnum said of the fee and rate study.

In his presentation, Handlers recommended the proposed $13,090 fee be called a sewer capacity charge, designed to recover the cost of capacity in existing and planned wastewater system infrastructure for the Santa Maria service area. The fee would be charged for new or expanded connections as in the past.

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Darrell Beck, board president, says cutting the sewer connection/mitigation fee from $20,000 to $13,090 will be good for Ramona.

Handlers also recommended that the sewer capacity charge be paid up front and available for a set period of time. If the new connection or additional EDUs were not implemented within that period, the applicant should then pay any possible increase, he said.

The consultant said the district could update the charge annually or periodically to account for future construction cost inflation. He also suggested the charge be independently reviewed about every five years.

Barnum said staff will provide the draft sewer capacity charge report to anyone who wants to view it. Contact the district office at 760-789-1330 for more information.

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