It's one of those fuzzy numbers on a utility bill; in this case, a water-sevice fee charged by Carefree Ranch Mobile Home Park in Escondido, where 77 of its 185 spaces fall under the city's rent-control ordinance. Last February, the fee doubled. This January (2018), a new law aimed at water conservation may help rein in such fees, at least for apartment dwellers.
Carefree Ranch resident Bruce Sims is trying to find out if it includes mobile home parks, and that's not the only question he has about his water bill.
After getting notice of the fee increase, Sims contacted Thomsen Properties, the Costa Mesa-based company that owns the park, to find out why the fee was being raised from $7.42 to $15. The answer came down to, "because we can,” Sims said. The park buys its water from the City of Escondido, then sells it to residents. Each home is equipped with its own submeter that measures water use.
Since the city's water is regulated by the state, Sims thought there might be rules barring such fee hikes. And with many seniors on fixed incomes at the rent-controlled parks, he wondered if the city could intervene. He's asked the California Public Utilities Commission, Legal Aid, the city of Escondido, and others.
The answers were unclear, which led to meetings with city officials, a Freedom of Information Act request, and letter after letter. All over an extra $7.58 on a fee that hasn't budged in years. But as water rates keep going up, more conflicts may arise over fees at the city's mobile-home parks, where water isn't always included in the base rent and answers can be hard to find.
"Many parks in Escondido which have not historically charged separately for water have recently installed submeters in order to charge separately for water," says Escondido Housing & Neighborhood Services manager Karen Youel.
In 1998, after a long investigation by the California Public Utilities Commission, prompted in part by water-sevice fees at mobile-home parks that submeter water, the agency made a ruling: mobile-home parks that submeter water to residents aren't considered public utilities or regulated by the commission. But they can't charge more than the city would.
"Parks may charge up to the amount each resident would pay if they were a single customer [not in a park] receiving service directly from the city," Youel says. "Even with the increase, the amount charged is still well below that."
So, the city’s authority to intervene is limited.
"As long as the park doesn't violate the municipal code, they wouldn't need to seek approval from the city utilities department," she says.
The current water-sevice fee for a resident of a single-family home is $37.58 for a 5/8” or 3/4” meter. Carefree, with its 6-inch meter, now pays $1450.05, which gets divided equally among the spaces. But Sims say the old formula has been abandoned, and there's no accounting for the increase.
For over a decade, the park simply raised the fee in keeping with the city's rate raises and divided it by the number of spaces, he says. Now residents are billed a flat fee that exceeds what the park pays the city.
"It's the issue of parks adding in their own costs that has brought my quixotic quest," he says.
State law allows water companies to recoup the costs of operating water meters through rates, fees, or charges. Escondido's water-sevice fee — a fee charged by most water utilities — covers fixed costs such as facility maintenance, pipeline repair, improvement projects, meter reading, and billing. Sims insists that the park has no such costs related to the service fee.
"The costs to maintain a park's water facilities are assisted with the way wastewater gets calculated," Sims says, and as a deductible business expense. (Carefree did not respond to questions for this story).
A new state law will require owners of multi-unit rental properties built after January 1, 2018, to submeter all apartments and multifamily units. The idea is to inform tenants whose water has been included in rent — giving no financial penalty or reward to conserve — how much water they use. But it also calls for fair submetering practices and includes consumer protections for the maintenance of submeters and billing for water service.
Youel isn't sure if the new law will apply to mobile-home parks, since it covers multiunit structures. Mobile-home parks — where residents often own their home but rent the space from the park — fall under the Mobile Home Residency Law.
Sims also asked the California Committee on Manufactured Housing if the section on fees in the new law will apply to parks. They didn't think so: mobile-home issues are governed by the Mobile Home Residency Law, he was told. But they gave him another contact at the state utilities commission, who cited the 1998 decision — parks aren't regulated by the state — that Sims says "the overpaying is being justified with."
However, he was also told he can lodge a complaint, which the commission will look into, if he can get enough other residents onboard. According to the rules, it's a numbers game. He'll have to be joined by park tenants "that represent 10 percent or more of the park's water service connections during any 12-month period." He'll do it, he says, when he gets the $30 together to send out copies of his solicitation to residents of the other 184 spaces.