Long Beach residents will see a 12% hike in their water bills beginning next month.
The City Council voted 7-1, with Councilman Al Austin dissenting, during its Tuesday, Sept. 10 meeting to approve a decision the Water Commission made earlier this year to increase rates, effective Oct. 1.
Chris Garner, the Water Department’s general manager, said ahead of the Water Commission’s vote that the higher rate would offset increases in supply costs. The department also sought to invest more in local infrastructure that could lower costs in the long-term, Garner said.
But some local residents have taken issue with that reasoning, particularly as the Water Department has transferred some of its cash to Long Beach’s general fund.
The Department moved over $12 million to the city’s coffers in fiscal year 2019, according to 2020 budget documents.
Those kinds of transfers were the subject of a 2017 lawsuit against Long Beach, which the city settled.
The lawsuit alleged the transfers amounted to a tax that voters had not approved. So Long Beach later took the issue to voters, who approved the practice last summer.
But the folks behind that 2017 lawsuit have continued to express concerns about how the Water Department uses its money.
Diana Lejins, who was a plaintiff, filed another lawsuit against the city last October, alleging that the practice is still illegal because it uses utility fees to fund services that are not utility-related, among other reasons.
Her attorney told the Water Commission in an Aug. 26 letter that he believed the rate hike would be “illegal and unconstitutional” under the lawsuit’s reasoning.
Lejins declined to comment Tuesday evening, citing the ongoing litigation. Her attorney did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Garner, for his part, said in June that if the rate increase was not approved, the Water Department would have had to draw down its funds to continue operating.
Garner said the proposed 12% hike would contribute to a $25-million investment, over three-to-four years, in the local pumping system. That would make Long Beach less reliant on imported water, he said, and lower the rates of pumping locally in the long-term.
“That’s a very high-cost initial investment in our wells,” Garner said, “but it would pay off, certainly, over time.”
NOTE: Grunion Gazette Executive Editor Harry Saltzgaver is a member of the Long Beach Water Commission.