RIALTO - The good news for customers of Rialto's water system is that the city has started settling its expensive legal battles against suspected water polluters.

The bad news is that, although customers have been paying for the team of lawyers and consultants through a surcharge on their water bills, no quick reimbursement is in sight.

Rialto has spent at least $20 million treating and investigating perchlorate and other chemicals polluting the groundwater, as well as fighting the suspected polluters in court.

But policies enacted by the City Council since 2004 indicate that the city and its water department, which serves about half the city, get repaid after legal settlements and judgements before the customers.

"I think it's a fair discussion to reconsider that," said City Councilwoman Winnie Hanson, a member of the council's perchlorate subcommittee.

The first settlement in the perchlorate matter is being finalized with San Bernardino County and calls for the county to clean up part of the contamination and pay the city $4 million.

The surcharge customers pay starts at $6.85 per bill and increases with consumption.

Longtime resident Mary Moton said the perchlorate charge on her last monthly water bill of $69.44 was $9.27.

"I think we should get all our money back. That's fair," she said.

When the council established the surcharge in 2004, it passed a policy that states the first priority is

repaying the water department, plus an extra $1.5 million for the department's reserves.

That repayment includes $5 million to City Council transferred from the General Fund reserves to the water department in November 2006 to pursue polluters.

After the city receives from polluters an amount equal to half the surcharges collected, ratepayers will be able to be reimbursed.

In recent months, Councilman Ed Scott, the other member of the perchlorate subcommittee, has said the ratepayers should be reimbursed before the water and general funds.

"That's my preference," he said.

Hanson said the council will probably have to examine the issue. She said members meeting in closed session would decide whether they want to vote on the issue in open session.

Hanson said she hasn't come down on one side of the issue yet. Her determination will include a number of factors, including the fiscal health of various city accounts.

Some residents don't seem to be conflicted.

"I think that the citizens should be paid back first. They didn't waste any time in taking the money out," Rialto resident and water customer Toby Polinger said of the city.

"It seems like the city puts these kinds of things together frequently that the Rialto citizens are often considered last," he said.


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