Utility bills could rise 40 percent to fund Los Angeles sewer improvement

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A pedestrian passes a city sewer project February 18, 2009 in Los Angeles, California.

The Los Angeles City Council's Energy and Environment Committee will consider today raising sanitation rates on utility bills 40 percent over the next five years.

The average family would see its monthly sanitation bill rise about $12, from $30 to nearly $42 in 2015, under a proposal being presented to the committee.

Without years of rate increases, the outlook for the city's 6,700-mile sewer system and water treatment plants would be "very bleak," Bureau of Sanitation Director Enrique Zaldivar told a local wire service.

In a report, City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana recommended 6.5 percent increases for three years, followed by 7.5 percent increases the following two fiscal years.

The bureau, which is part of the Department of Public Works, has held nearly 40 public outreach meetings over the last two months with neighborhood councils, chambers of commerce and other community groups to pitch the need for rate increases. Zaldivar said the department received very positive feedback.

He also said that the rate increases are necessary because the Bureau of Sanitation is dramatically underfunded given the amount of infrastructure work required to modernize the system, fix emergency breaks and take a proactive approach to preventing major spills.

Zaldivar said a major pressurized pipeline that carries 20 percent of the city's wastewater from Venice to the city's Hyperion Treatment Plant in Playa Del Rey has not been inspected in over 50 years. "It sits underneath the beach, so we know it's a very corrosive environment, but we do not know what the inside of that pipe looks like," he said.

The city's sewer service rates put it at the low end in California, behind San Francisco, which charges $85 per month, and San Diego, which charges $48 per month, according to a Bureau of Sanitation report.

Over the last two decades, the city has kept customer rates mostly flat, instead borrowing heavily to fund capital improvements and emergency repairs. It also received more than $1 billion in federal clean water grants to help cover the rising cost of infrastructure repairs to sewers and water treatment plants.

About 50 percent of the city's sewer system is 70 years old, close to the average 80-year lifespan of municipal sewer systems, according to the Bureau of Sanitation. Twenty percent of the pipes are older than that. Under its current budget, the bureau is on track to replace the sewer system and do necessary treatment plant repairs every 168 years, more than twice as long as advisable, officials said.

The proposed rate increase would also create a special fund to help property owners fix unexpected sewer system breaks. Property owners are responsible for the cost of fixing the nearly 11,000 miles of pipes that connect toilets, sinks and showers to the city's main sewer system.

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