New water rates send cash down the drain 

The first round of water bills under San Francisco’s new sliding payment scale have started to reach mail slots — and nearly three-fourths of property owners have entered what some are calling "the penalty phase."

Earlier this summer, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission approved a sliding scale for the cost of water, increasing the amount single-family homes pay after using 2,244 gallons of water — about enough to handwash dishes 18 times with a standard faucet, according to Flex Your Power, the state energy-conservation program.

Prior to the new tiered-rate structure, all residential properties paid $1.97 per unit of water. Under the new system, single-family homes pay $2.08 for each unit of water up to three units and $2.50 for each unit thereafter.

Multiunit homes pay a flat fee of $2.47 for each unit of water, which is 748 gallons.

Since mid-July, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission has billed about 80 percent of customers under the new system, and some property owners are boiling about skyrocketing bills while others say it’s only the beginning of future rate increases.

Only one-fourth of customers remained within the first payment tier, using less than three units of water a month, which leaves the majority of customers flooding into the higher tier, according to the commission. On average, the commission says single-family homes are expected to pay 9 percent more a month, including sewer payments.

"Thethree units of water offered to people at a low market rate will get people thinking, ‘This is great,’" said Nancy Wuerfel, vice president of the Sunset Parkside Education and Action Committee. "But when the family gets the bill, if you have lots of people using water, those three units go away very quickly. This is going to be more of a penalty."

Phyllis Schrobsdorff, who rents a two-story Victorian home in Presidio Heights, said her average water bill before the new rate system was about $220. Now she is paying about $360.

"The first tier is fairly low, then you enter into what I call the penalty phase," Schrobsdorff said. "The first thing I thought was, ‘Oh great, they’re wasting water.’ Then I thought, ‘There must be a leak.’ But, no."

In June, the commission — which plans to use the additional revenue for capital improvements, including seismic upgrades to Hetch Hetchy Reservoir — struck a deal with Supervisor Michela Alioto-Pier, who represents the Marina district, to dissolve a three-tiered plan dubbed the "family tax." Under that system, largely marketed as a conservation campaign, single-family homes would have paid $3.83 for any water units above 10.

The deal also requires the SFPUC to develop legislation, which Alioto-Pier has agreed to sponsor, which would allow landlords to pass 50 percent of water payments onto tenants, known as a "pass through." Landlords would be allowed to pass 70 percent of the payments onto tenants if the apartments are retrofitted with energy-efficient appliances.

arocha@examiner.com

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