UNION CITY -- In what has become a Tri-City political tradition, only Union Sanitary District board incumbents have declared their candidacy for two open seats.

That ensured victory for Thomas Handley and Jennifer Toy, who automatically return to the special district's board unopposed for the fifth consecutive time.

In fact, only a few board races for the Union City-based agency have been contested in dozens of elections over the past 20 years. But district leaders see the lack of candidates as a positive.

"It indicates there are few problems," said Handley, who ran unopposed in 2008 and 2010, and twice more while serving on the board from 1995 to 2002. "If nothing is there to raise people's ire, then they're not looking for big changes."

Formed in 1918, the Union Sanitary District collects and treats wastewater and manages the sewer system for more than 330,000 residents in Fremont, Newark and Union City. With an annual budget of nearly $50 million, the agency has 135 employees serving homes and businesses throughout 60 square miles in southern Alameda County.

The part-time board members combined salaries total $69,569 -- or, on average, nearly $14,000 a year per member. Full health benefits -- including medical, dental and vision care, and worth nearly $13,000 per member -- are offered them and their families, district leaders said. The benefits cease when they leave the board.

The five directors earn $235 a meeting, for no more than six meetings a month. "We average about five meetings a month through the year, but last month we had 10," Handley said.

The other board members are Manny Fernandez, Anjali Lathi and Pat Kite, whose terms expire in 2016.

Richard Currie, the district's general manager since 2003, said agency staffers try to avoid resembling the stereotype of government employees -- they work hard to respond quickly to customer calls.

"We're generally the quiet utility," said Currie, who joined the district in 1991. "Sanitary districts don't tend to make a lot of news, particularly if it is doing its job well."

But that service has come with increasing cost for customers, as the board has raised rates each year since 2004. Last summer, it approved a 5.7 percent hike through 2016.

Current rates, on average, total about $338 a year, or around $28.17 per month, district leaders said. But that will rise each year for the foreseeable future to pay for upgrading the utility's aging pipes and facilities, Handley said.

"We have roughly 780 miles of sewer pipelines, and many of them need to be replaced," he said. "The majority of our infrastructure is 30 or 40 years old, when (the Tri-City) area came of age, but our oldest pipes go back as far as the 1920s."

Last month, the board gave Currie a $10,000 raise, boosting his annual base salary to $238,800.

Handley said he and other board members don't anticipate a voter blowback over increasing Currie's salary while raising rates.

"We compare wages of comparable positions, and he's not overpaid," he said. "The man has done an excellent job and deserved it."

Meantime, Currie defends the rate hikes, saying that the district had budget shortfalls when it lowered rates a few times in the early 2000s. In contrast, rate increases since then have allowed the district to maintain high performance, he said.

"There have been no sinkholes, system overflows or problems with our treatment plant," he said. "I don't think we've had any service interruption in the utility's history. What's important is what you get for your money."

Contact Chris De Benedetti at 510-353-7011. Follow him at Twitter.com/cdebenedetti.