Los Gatos Weekly Times

Customers protest rate increases from San Jose Water Company

- By Maggie Angst mangst@ bayareanew­sgroup.com

Customers of Silicon Valley’s largest water company are in an uproar after receiving yet another proposal to substantia­lly hike up their monthly water bills.

Under a new proposal from San Jose Water, the monthly bill of a typical customer would increase nearly 30% over the next four years — and that’s on top of an about 60% rise in rates since 2015.

With many San Jose residents and families struggling financiall­y amid the COVID-19 pandemic, many across the South Bay described the proposed hike as “outrageous,” “irresponsi­ble” and “greedy.”

If the California Public Utilities Commission, which is tasked with regulating privately owned public utilities, approves the company’s plan, customers would see an 18.73% rate hike next year alone, followed by 3.32% in 2023 and 3.38% in 2024, according to a public notice sent out last month. An additional 3% rate increase went into effect for 2021 in January.

For a homeowner with a 3/4-inch water meter who is currently paying $92.54 a month, the proposed hikes would increase their payments to $117.25 a month by 2024.

About 1 million residents living in central and west San Jose, a small portion of north San Jose, as well as Saratoga, Campbell, Los Gatos, Monte Sereno and half of Cupertino would be affected by the rate increase.

“This is outrageous, especially given the fact that we’re in a pandemic,” said Rishi Kumar, a Saratoga councilmem­ber, who has been spearheadi­ng efforts to oppose San Jose Water’s push for higher rates and surcharges for the past halfdecade. “It’s really sad that people have to worry about paying for water along with putting food on the table and keeping up with housing.”

The rate increases are due to escalating expenses related to “increasing­ly stringent” water quality requiremen­ts, cybersecur­ity and data privacy mandates and needed system infrastruc­ture replacemen­ts, according to San Jose Water.

San Jose Water’s parent company SJW Group in October 2019 completed a merger with Connecticu­t Water, making it one of the nation’s largest investorow­ned water utilities with customers in California, Connecticu­t, Maine and Texas. The company plans to spend $435 million on water infrastruc­ture over the next three years, including replacing approximat­ely 75 miles of water mains, its website states.

“In general, we know this is an already difficult time for everyone, including our customers, however, it’s on us to protect public health and safety as we continue to live through this pandemic,” said Liann Walborsky, director of corporate communicat­ion for San Jose Water. “We really do need funds to help our investment in local water infrastruc­ture to ensure that our pipes and systems are reliable.”

San Jose Water charges its customers considerab­ly higher rates than some of the other local private and municipal water companies that serve the Silicon Valley area. In San Jose, for instance, the other two companies that serve the minority of residents — San Jose Municipal Water system and Great Oaks Water Company — charge at least 30% lower rates than San Jose Water.

At the request of San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, the city in March is expected to hold a public hearing between city leaders and San Jose Water representa­tives to learn more about the water company’s justificat­ion for raising the rates.

San Jose leaders have been flooded with emails from residents urging them to do whatever is in their power to stop the rate hikes. San Jose Water customers have until early April to lodge their complaints with the California Public Utilities Commission, which has already received 500 comments on the matter.

“Water is an essential need, not a commodity,” San Jose resident Cynthia Tacci wrote in a recent email to her city leaders. “The pandemic has wreaked havoc on the economy and many people have lost their jobs and incomes, including me, and now is not the time to agree to a water increase.”

Liccardo said the March hearing will also help the City of San Jose decide whether to file a formal challenge against San Jose Water’s proposed rate increases with the California Public Utilities Commission.

“I think it’s important for us to get the facts out into the open and provide some transparen­cy to

San Jose Water’s request for higher rates, particular­ly given the dramatic increase we’ve seen over the last decade,” Liccardo said in an interview Friday. “At a time when so many of our residents are suffering and families are struggling to pay bills, this is not the time to be making any but the most essential capital investment­s that could impact rates.”

The latest proposed rate increases are just the latest dissension in an increasing­ly contentiou­s battle between the San Jose Water Company and its South Bay customers.

Residents have formed multiple citizen accountabi­lity groups — the SJWC Water Oversight Committee and Water Rate Advocates for Transparen­cy, Equity and Sustainabi­lity or WRATES — in the past decade to keep a close eye on the water company.

In February 2020, in response to claims that San Jose Water overcharge­d customers by millions of dollars for decades, the company finalized a settlement agreement to refund customers nearly $2 million. Those refunds were handed out to customers last spring. As part of the settlement approved by the California Public Utilities Commission, San Jose Water also was required to spend $5 million in capital investment­s on its public water system.

“It seems like if you don’t pay attention and oppose it, they just keep raising it until it reaches the level of pain,” said Anthony Hoffman, 75, of Saratoga. “But when you’re dealing with a monopoly like this, you’re kind of at their will.”

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