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Council approves 15% water rate increase
Highway wildflower project coming to Turlock
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City of Turlock water customers will be paying 15 percent more starting Jan. 1, 2017, following the City Council's decision on Tuesday to approve a planned increase in rates.

The average residential customer (using 12,000 gallons per month) will see their monthly bills increase from $31.36 a month to $35.98 a month. Even with the rate increase Turlockers will pay less for water than most of their neighbors, according to a report presented to the Council, with Modesto residents paying between $59.50 to $63.22 (depending on if they have a water meter) , Merced residents paying $36.74 to $48.99 and Ceres residents paying $44.13.

"It's not fun to make these votes, but it's necessary for the City," said Mayor Gary Soiseth.

The 2017 water rate increase is part of a series of six increases adopted by the City Council in 2014. The approved increase will go to the operations and maintenance the City of Turlock's current groundwater only system and does not include funding the construction of the proposed surface water treatment plant.

Turlock is partners with the City of Ceres in the Stanislaus Regional Water Authority, which was created to build and operate a surface water treatment project that would take water out of the Tuolumne River and treat it for human consumption. Turlock has been working on the project as an alternative to its current all-groundwater supply.  A cost estimate for the proposed surface water treatment plant is expected to come before the City Council in spring 2017.

According to Regulatory Affairs Manager Garner Reynolds, the 2017 rate increase will go primarily to fund capital expenditures for the groundwater system — putting in three new municipal wells and rehabilitation efforts for the other City wells.

"We need to make sure we have that long-term water resource available," said Reynolds about the maintenance projects.

Gil Esquer, a candidate for City Council District 2, said while he understood the need for the increase to help maintain the City's water supply he also related to the hardships it will mean to some of the City's poorest residents.

"A lot of our citizens out there were paying $100 to $120 every two months and now they're paying $110 per month," said Esquer.

When Vice Mayor Amy Bublak asked about the feasibility of creating a subsidy program to help those on a fixed income pay for rate increases, Reynolds replied that the City cannot use water revenues to fund such a program and staff is looking into other ways to fund it.

One idea that Reynolds said he would be bringing before the Council in January is the creation of an Excessive Water Use Penalty . The penalty —allowable under SB 814, a drought bill approved in August regarding excessive water use —would not only encourage residents to conserve water but could also be used as a funding source for a water rate subsidy program.

Reynolds said that while most Turlock residents have reduced their water consumption drastically over the past few years, one and half to three percent of customers would be considered having excessive usage right now.

Also on Tuesday, the Council authorized the City of Turlock participating in the State Highway 99 Wildflower Beautification project.

City staff will soon be spreading wildflower seeds along suitable sloped areas between Monte Vista Avenue and Lander Avenue crossings of Highway 99. If germination is successful, drivers along Turlock's stretch of the freeway will be greeted with bursts of color come spring.

"This is not a vote about wildflowers," said Soiseth, "It's about economic's a signal that this community cares about the way it presents itself."