Contra Costa Water District's half-million residential customers were invited to a public rate-hike hearing last week. By my count, three of them showed up. Oh, there were eight people scattered among the 100 or so seats, but that included me and four district staff members. They were recognizable by the serious looks on their faces and the binders in their laps.

It's safe to conclude the 3.5 percent rate increase that was approved and will become effective next month didn't generate a lot of consumer outrage.

Perhaps people are all outraged out, after the political campaigns, the fiscal cliff and the Oakland Raiders' 4-12 season. Even a teakettle can blow steam for only so long. Or perhaps the public's acceptance of a modest price bump reflects appreciation for that rarest of creations: a public agency that acts responsibly.

Low flow water faucets  can save water inside the home but make sure they don’t have a slow leak such as this one in Concord, Calif., on Thursday
Low flow water faucets can save water inside the home but make sure they don't have a slow leak such as this one in Concord, Calif., on Thursday April 2, 2009. (Susan Tripp Pollard/Staff)

We give you, by comparison, the back-to-back East Bay Municipal Utility District rate bumps of 6 percent each for 2012 and 2013 and the Alameda Water District's proposed 17 percent hike for the Tri-City area this year. Contra Costa's increases over the past 10 years have swung between 1.5 and 4.3 percent, only twice exceeding 3.

That's because district guidelines dictate that no increases exceed the rate of inflation -- the Bay Area Consumer Price Index jumped by 3.7 percent this year -- and hikes are approved only as needed to meet operational, maintenance and capital expenses.

It's a lean, mean way of doing business -- very unbureaucratic.

"These rate increases are not arbitrary," said Joe Campbell, district board president. "They're done with math. We put in the assumptions of what we want to achieve and the projects we're going to build. Everything goes into a computer and spits out what we need to do."

Campbell, a retired waterline contractor and a board member for 21 years, said mismanagement and excessive rates inspired him to run for his office in 1991. ("That was the year they raised rates 23 percent," he said.) The district operated by the seat of its pants back then, pulling water from the Delta at all times of year and hitting customers in the pocketbook when it was short on cash.

Since then, the district built the sprawling Los Vaqueros reservoir -- when water is cleanest and most plentiful, it's stored there -- and new pipelines and treatment facilities were added. Much of that construction was financed. Repayment of those loans is factored into customer rates.

Campbell proudly explains that the district has increased its assets by $400 million in the last 10 years while reducing its staffing from 331 to 312, and none of its funding derives from taxes. District revenue comes from usage rates, outside contracts and grants.

Last week's hearing included a PowerPoint presentation, during which Director of Finance Brice Bledsoe showed the rate increases the district anticipates for each of the next 10 years, none exceeding 3.75 percent. That long-range forecast, he said, is designed to avoid rate volatility.

Said Campbell: "Unlike the federal government, which doesn't have a budget, we have one we renew and update each year. We also have a 50-year water supply plan. Where are we going to get it? How much are we going to need?"

It all sounded sane and logical. It sounded like the way an operation should be run.

It's hard to believe it's a public agency.

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.