San Mateo sewer fees prompt malodorous debate

While some residents said recent increases in sewer service charges stink, the city hopes part of the money collected will end a similar complaint about their neighborhoods.

The 8 percent increase in usage fees and a base service increase of more than 500 percent will help pay for a new anaerobic digester at the San Mateo Wastewater Treatment Plant.

The digester — which uses bacteria to break down and clean wastewater sludge before it is pumped into the Bay — is replacing a “low-pressure oxidizer,” which dried out the sludge, then burned it, producing a distinct odor that permeated parts of eastern San Mateo.

“In portions of the neighborhood, on certain days, you can get the full smell and flavor of it,” said City Council member Brandt Grotte, who can smell the plant from his home at times. “Sometimes it’s just waste-water treatment smell, and other times it smells like rotting sewage.”

In a unanimous vote Monday, theCity Council voted to increase sewer service rates by 8 percent and increased the minimum monthly charge for service from $2 to $10.45. According to the report by Senior Management Analyst Jean Hill, the typical single-family home in San Mateo uses approximately 800 cubic feet of water monthly, while condominium owners use just under 500 cubic feet.

The base charge — which impacts residents who use below the average of 3,000 cubic feet of water annually — increased from $24 annually to $125.40.

Resident Arthur Goldenstein said that an increase to more than five times the current minimum charge would be akin to punishing residents who work to keep their water usage down.

“It’s just patently unfair and penalizes a select group of people,” he said.

Public Works Director Larry Patterson said the increases are necessary to help fund the $6 million worth of operating and capital improvements for the systems.

Patterson said the city is working to collect methane produced by the digesters to power some of the processes at the plant and avoid having to buy natural gas or other fuel.

The methane may ultimately be able to power half the plant, while the digesters provide a more reliable, affordable method of cleaning the sewage before it is sent into the Bay.

The entire digester and system-improvement project has a $30 million price tag, and should be completed by the end of the year, Patterson said.

jgoldman@examiner.com

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