Huntington Beach is looking to change its water rate structure over the coming years in response to a new state mandate and to promote conservation.

With that in mind, council members and city staff met for a study session Monday at which public works director Travis Hopkins offered a few options the city could choose from.

Hopkins said the cost of a new cashiering and billing system is estimated at $1.2 million, with the process taking up to two years.

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Huntington Beach has 52,616 accounts and uses a uniform rate system, charging about $1.75 per 100 cubic feet, or 748 gallons, of water and a meter fee of $11.24. If Surf City decides to adopt a tiered water budget, conservative customers could see a slight drop in their bills while heavy users could be hit with higher rates.

Public works staff started the study in 2011 using grant money from the state, Hopkins said.

Huntington Beach was nudged to consider a new rate structure after the state passed a water conservation law in 2009. California Senate Bill X7-7 requires water suppliers, like Huntington Beach, to reduce consumption by 20% by the end of 2020.

Hopkins discussed three- and four-tier rate schedules for single-family residences, based on usage.

Portions of the tiered fees would help pay for various components. Tier one and two would help pay for the water the city receives from the Municipal Water District of Orange County and the Orange County Water District, as well as the delivery costs to customers. Tier three would help pay for water efficiency and conservation programs, while tier four would fund urban runoff prevention programs.

The three-tier system could charge efficient customers around $1.66 per 100 cubic feet of water while excessive users could be hit with a rate of $2.99 for the same amount.

Rates for the proposed four-tier system are slightly higher, with tier-one customers facing roughly $1.69 per 100 cubic feet. High-volume users could see almost double that, or around $3.20.

A family with special needs could be given a variance allowing more water use than their tier's maximum but still at the lower tier rate. For example, a household with more people or with a large lawn could be given a variance.

Hopkins cautioned council members that additional staff would be required to monitor variances. The more variances that are created, the greater the need for employees, he said.

Hopkins said the figures presented to the council Monday are expected to change after the Public Works Department continues to gather more input from council members and the public.

Mayor Pro Tem Matthew Harper said he's "skeptical of a system like this." He said it should be up to consumers and not the city to determine how much water they should use.

Mayor Connie Boardman likes the idea of having "water wasters" paying a higher rate but would like to add variances to keep things fair for those with special circumstances.

Councilwoman Jill Hardy said she brought this topic up before during previous terms and believes a tiered system gives a more personalized and fair billing approach.

"There will be more buy into the system if people feel like they're getting individual attention to what their needs are versus a blanket statement," she said.