Quick Take:

Watsonville is advancing rate increases for its water, sewage and solid waste utilities — funds officials say are needed to pay for overdue infrastructure upgrades. The new rates will take effect in July unless a majority of ratepayers protest.

Watsonville is advancing a proposal to raise rates for its water, sewage and solid waste utilities over the next five years, funds city officials say are needed for infrastructure upgrades that are already overdue.

As proposed, wastewater fees would increase by 7.5% annually through 2026; water rates by 1%; and solid waste by 7.5% for the first three years, then 5% for the remaining two. Changes to the tiers for water usage could offset some increase for households with less usage.

It all translates to a roughly 22% hike in an average household’s monthly bills over the five-year span, according to a staff report — from about $167 to $203 in 2026.

The Watsonville City Council unanimously approved the rate increases at its Tuesday meeting.

Before changes take effect, however, ratepayers have a chance to object. A 45-day public notice period will open the last week of March, during which time ratepayers can submit written protests to the city that will be tallied at a public hearing set for May 25. Protests from a majority of ratepayers would block the increases.

Information on the new rates, and how to protest, will be mailed to ratepayers the week of March 29, according to city officials.

City officials didn’t disclose the exact number of ratepayers, but the number is in the tens of thousands. The city utilities department provides water and sanitation services for about 55,000 residents. In addition, the department provides water service for an additional 12,000 residents in the unincorporated areas surrounding the city and provides sewage transmission and treatment for three sanitation districts located in Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties serving approximately 12,400 residents.

Watsonville has already waited too long to fund critical utility upgrades while costs rise and its aging infrastructure is increasingly at risk of failure, according to Christian Di Renzo, the city’s assistant director of public works and utilities. New state regulations and market changes are also driving up costs.

“We are on borrowed time at this point,” Di Renzo said.

Noting that city officials had asked for an even higher rate increase last year before pausing due to the pandemic, Councilmember Eduardo Montecino motioned to propose even higher rate hikes: 8.5% annually for wastewater and solid waste, and 2% annually for water.

Continuing to put off infrastructure investments leads to costly repairs and higher risks of failure, Montecino said.

“I want my toilet to flush,” Montesino said. “I don’t want to be the next Texas where we don’t get water — or clean water.”

Montesino’s proposal was narrowly rejected in a 4-3 vote, opposed by Mayor Jimmy Dutra and Councilmembers Rebecca Garcia, Francisco Estrada and Aurelio Gonzalez.

“I can’t do this to the community at this time,” Dutra said before voting against Montesino’s motion.

If enacted, the higher rates would take effect in July.

Follow Nick Ibarra on: Twitter. Ibarra has a track record of reporting that has shone light into almost every corner of Santa Cruz County. Raised in the Santa Cruz Mountains, he came to journalism from...