Of all the unpleasant tasks local elected officials must undertake, raising garbage rates ranks right up there.
Sacramento City Council members won’t please everyone whatever they decide Tuesday night, but they can lessen the hit, at least a little.
City officials are recommending rate increases of 3 percent in July, 2 percent in July 2016 and 2 percent in July 2017. Those hikes, however, could be lowered by reducing a reserve fund. That is definitely worth considering.
For a homeowner with the medium-size, 64-gallon garbage can, the combined monthly charge for garbage, recycling and yard waste pickup would go from $33.14 now to $35.55 in 2017, under the staff proposal. That would be with a 90-day operating reserve.
With a 75-day reserve, that homeowner would pay 54 cents less a month; with a 60-day cushion, customers would pay $1.35 less a month.
The increases would be the first since 2010 (the $1.34 monthly street sweeping charge isn’t changing). The hikes may seem small, but council members must keep in mind that residents already are paying more for water, sewer and wastewater services. After three years of double-digit increases in city water and sewer rates, the average bill had gone up $19 a month as of last July; regional wastewater rates are scheduled to rise by another $9 a month by July 2016.
Add it all up and the average Sacramento homeowner would be paying $390 more a year for basic public utilities in July 2017 than they were in June 2012 – if the proposal goes through as is.
That point was made by the citizens Utilities Rate Advisory Commission. It did its job, asking some tough questions and forcing city solid waste officials to explain why operating expenses are rising and why it isn’t possible to cut rates. The “million-dollar question” ended up being how large the reserve should be as a hedge against some calamity, or unexpected hike in expenses such as disposal fees or fuel.
With the 2010 rate increase, the reserve has been built to nearly $14 million – or 82 days of operation. The proposed rate hike would maintain the reserve at 90 days, which city officials say is the industry standard.
To avoid any rate hike at all, it would require dropping to a 30-day reserve. That’s too risky, but there’s room for compromise. The advisory commission voted 3-2 last month for the 90-day reserve over 75 days.
If the council does raise rates, it ought to direct officials to look at giving more help to poor families, seniors and others on fixed incomes through something similar to the city’s assistance program for water and sewer bills.
The economy is improving. Unemployment is down. Still, many Sacramento residents are hurting. Council members shouldn’t pile on the pain unless it’s absolutely necessary.