County signs off on water rate hikes

The new year will bring higher bills for Las Vegas Valley Water District customers.

Starting Jan. 1, a pair of rate increases will take effect that should add $3 to $4 to the average monthly bills for most residential customers in 2010.

Serving in its role as the water district board, the Clark County Commission approved the rate hikes on Tuesday to help balance the water district’s budget and pay for a $700 million pipeline to draw water from deeper in Lake Mead.

One rate increase involves the district’s flat monthly service charge, which varies depending on the size of a customer’s water meter. For about half of the customers, the monthly charge will go up $2 next year, while about 40 percent of customers will pay $2.31 more each month.

The commissioners also signed off on a direct pass-through of a rate increase approved in September by the Southern Nevada Water Authority, the umbrella agency of the water district.

Starting in January, the authority will double its monthly commodity charge to 20 cents per 1,000 gallons in 2010. For the average Las Vegas Valley home, the 10-cent bump will mean roughly one extra dollar a month.

Taken together, the rate adjustments for next year represent an increase of about 14 percent to the average monthly bill for the median Las Vegas household.

Both the commodity charge and service charge will go up again by the same amounts on Jan. 1, 2011.

Before Tuesday’s vote, the commission heard from a handful of residents who warned that the rate hikes will hit lower-income families the hardest and worsen the situation for residents already suffering through the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

Launce Rake from the Progressive Leadership Alliance of the Nevada, a left-leaning advocacy group, said the district should be targeting the valley’s biggest water gluttons. Instead, the rate hike will have the greatest effect on "working families who use water wisely," he said.

"It punishes those who do not have the money to let water run down the street," Rake said.

Environmentalist John Hiatt warned that raising fixed charges instead of consumption-based ones could hurt efforts to get residents to buy into future conservation initiatives. "It will not illicit the cooperation of people we desperately need in the long run," he said.

Water district Deputy General Manager Dick Wimmer said the state’s largest public utility operates with "zero profit margin" and gets most of its revenue from the sale of water. If there isn’t enough money coming in to pay for operations, "we either need to reduce costs or raise revenue, and actually we need to do both," Wimmer said.

Over the past year, the district has eliminated or left vacant 193 staff positions and cut costs by more than $447 million, Wimmer said.

As for the commodity rate increase, Pat Mulroy, who serves as general manager of both the authority and the water district, said the additional revenue is needed to finish the new pipeline into Lake Mead and pay Arizona to bank surplus Colorado River water for use in Las Vegas someday.

The rate hike also is aimed at preserving the authority’s reserve fund, which used to benefit from new-customer connection charges that have all but vanished, Mulroy said.

Commissioners Chris Giunchigliani and Lawrence Weekly cast the only votes against the rate hikes.

"I understand the plight of the water district," Weekly said after the meeting, "but I got people right now who can’t afford another dime coming out of their pockets."

The Henderson City Council voted last month to impose similar rate increases on its water and sewer customers starting next year.

Today, the North Las Vegas City Council is scheduled to discuss a direct pass-through of the water authority’s commodity rate hike, but no increase in the city’s water service charges has been proposed.

North Las Vegas just raised its water rates by 4 percent in all four of its consumption-based tiers. That increase began showing up on bills in November.

Contact reporter Henry Brean at hbrean@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0350.

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