Drought-Friendly Rate Plan Fought in SoCal

     SAN DIEGO (CN) – Several water districts’ tiered water rates in Southern California aren’t based on what it costs to deliver water and are therefore unconstitutional, disgruntled ratepayers claim in a class action.
     Lead plaintiff Mark Coziahr sued the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, Otay Water District and the San Diego County Water Authority in Superior Court on July 14.
     Coziahr’s lawsuit comes on the heels of an April 20 ruling from the state’s Fourth Appellate District, which found that San Juan Capistrano’s tiered water rates are unconstitutional.
     The panel determined that charging higher rates for people who use a lot of water as a means of enforcing conservation violated Proposition 218, which limits fees that agencies can impose without taxpayer consent.
     Among other things, Proposition 218 states that “fees or charges for water service cannot exceed the proportional cost of service attributable to a given parcel,” Coziahr’s complaint states.
     Fees that do exceed the cost of service amount to a tax, which water agencies cannot impose without voter approval, it adds.
     The Metropolitan Water District’s scope of service is huge: it sells water to 26 “member public agencies which in turn provide water to more than 19 million people in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego and Ventura counties,” the complaint states.
     Coziahr says he gets his water from Otay, which gets its water from the San Diego County Water Authority, which buys it from MWD.
     Like San Juan Capistrano, MWD and Otay established tiered-rate structures based on a customer’s meter size or units of water used. Those on the lower tiers pay the lowest rates, while customers who use more water are charged progressively higher rates calculated on the previous tiers’ charges, according to the complaint.
     San Diego Water Authority does not have use tiers, but still charges consumers based on their water consumption, the complaint states.
     Though these systems may have been created to encourage water conservation by punishing overuse, Coziahr says, the fee structures violate the California Constitution’s mandate that water fees reflect costs of service.
     As they stand, the defendants’ fee structures “constitute an unauthorized and impermissible tax on water,” the complaint states.
     An MWD spokesman told Courthouse News the district was reviewing the suit and declined further comment.
     A representative for Otay Water District said the district hadn’t yet been served with the complaint and declined comment.
     Coziahr seeks class certification, an order that the rate structures are unconstitutional, and an injunction prohibiting the defendants from enforcing the fee structures.
     He is represented by Scott Levine of Silldorf & Levine and Eric Gibbs of Gibbs Law Group in Oakland.
     Andre Mura, an attorney with Gibbs, told Courthouse News Coziahr brought the suit “to vindicate his constitutional right to equal treatment in the assessment of water delivery fees.”
     “As the courts have held time and again, absent voter approval, public water agencies cannot charge Californians excessive fees for water service,” Mura said.
     When asked about the need for conservation in California’s severe drought, Mura said: “The California Constitution expresses the people’s view that water conservation is achieved by pricing that reflects the actual cost of water delivery service to a given property. This suit seeks to enforce the water conservation policies adopted by the people.”
     This past month, ratepayers in Marin County filed a similar class action against the Marin Municipal Water District.

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