A unanimous Marana Town Council has approved a water rate increase to take effect in February.

The adjustment, with the town's first-ever, 30-cent per 1,000 gallons groundwater resource acquisition and development fee, and the end of a fee waiver on the first 1,000 gallons of water consumed, is expected to add $4.58 per month to the bill of a residential customer using an average of 7,500 gallons a month. That person is currently paying $30.21 a month, according to a report from the town's rate consulting firm, economists.com.

Larger commercial accounts, averaging 50,000 gallons of consumption a month, would see charges increase $17.86 a month. They currently pay $204.54 a month.

The town does not expect to make other rate adjustments in 2010. A rate adjustment is being recommended for 2011, along with a 10-cent per 1,000 gallon increase in the new acquisition and development fee to 40 cents, adding an average of $1.79 a month to the bill of the average 7,500-gallon monthly user.

Dan Jackson of economists.com said "it's never an easy thing … to ask rate payers to pay more for service.

"But your water table is decreasing, your aquifer is decreasing," Jackson said. "That's the primary reason for your rate adjustments."

Dorothy O'Brien, director of the town's utilities department, said later Marana's water table is holding fairly steady. But, she said, "every year, we have to buy the water we plan on pumping. The goal is to always replenish what you pull out."

Annually, Marana orders water from the Central Arizona Project, and the town makes payments to the Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District and the Arizona Department of Water Resources for replenishment and administration. New fees for resource acquisition and development are expected to generate $250,000, approximately covering those expenses. "It's just money to take care of current fees," O'Brien said.

Revenues into the Marana water fund for the current fiscal year are $3.17 million. With the adjustments, revenues are anticipated to be just over $3.4 million for the fiscal year that begins July 1, O'Brien said.

Resident David Morales warned the council about the effect of increased fees on the elderly, people on fixed incomes, and those struggling with economic difficulty.

"Every time you raise a rate, whatever it is, there's people out there you are doing a lot of harm to," Morales said.

"We absolutely understand that," Councilwoman Patti Comerford said. "The last thing we want to do is increase anything for people right now. But there's a cost for product, and where do we pay for it? I just don't know which Paul or Peter to go to any more to make those payments."

"It's not something we want to do," agreed Councilwoman Roxanne Ziegler.

Vice Mayor Herb Kai abstained from the vote.

Jackson told the council the cost of acquiring water for groundwater replenishment continues to rise. Because water is not plentiful in Arizona, "the challenge of acquiring new resources is something we have to address. It is going to make water more expensive in the next 10 to 15 years.

If the Department of Water Resources or the Central Arizona Project were to significantly increase fees they charge Marana, "we would be coming forward to you" with a request for further revenues, O'Brien said.

Marana's monthly charge for a residential consumer of 10,000 gallons a month is $36.02, compared with a $42.52 average statewide, and $46.06 for neighboring Oro Valley for that similar customer, Jackson said.

His forecast for water rate planning expects "continued economic downturn," with fewer new residential accounts each year than in the major growth period of 2005-2006, when Marana added some 1,900 new residential accounts in a two-year period. This year, the town expects fewer than 100 new accounts, with some annual increase anticipated through the rest of the new decade. "The past is not always a good indicator of what's going to happen in the future," Jackson said.

Operating expenses are expected to rise 3 to 5 percent a year. Jackson further assumes Marana will proceed with issuance of $4.48 million in water-related debt to fund acquisition of resources from the Cortaro Marana Irrigation District, and to complete infrastructure from Twin Peaks up north along Camino de Manana. Rate recommendations are no longer assuming Marana's acquisition of accounts from Tucson Water. If the town were to acquire accounts from Tucson Water, Jackson recommends it "reconsider your rate structure immediately."

Marana is challenged by geography and history; namely, "integrating several systems that have been thrust together over a large area" of diverse terrain. Jackson lives in Frisco, Texas, "flat as a pancake" and therefore without geographic obstacles.

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