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Calistoga water rates threaten laundromat

Julian Maldonado Ramirez was one of many customers who used Calistoga’s only coin operated laundry last week. Operators say they may not be able to keep the facility open after higher city and sewer rates take effect next month. | Photo by Clark James Mishler

Every week, Calistoga resident Rodrigo Gonzalez comes to Calistoga’s lone coin laundry and spends $5.50 per load washing his clothes. The dryer costs another two or three dollars.

A pending water and sewer increase will force those rates to jump, unless the operator of the store decides the hike is just too much and closes the facility.

“I live in a single room,” Gonzalez said. “I have two jobs and I have no access to a washer. I come here once a week and if the costs go up, it will affect me greatly.”

A vital service to many town residents for decades, the future of Calistoga’s laundry is very much threated by the rate hikes set to begin in March.

“It’s a big problem,” said Dante Tamo, whose family operates the laundry. “We’re really not making money on the store now. We’re kind of running it as a service to the community. It’s becoming a tough situation for us.”

The hike in the water and sewer rates was approved by the Calistoga City Council in December. The current average monthly household bill is $213. An average monthly increase of $37 is set to take effect in March, with additional annual increases taking place every January through 2028. By the end of the escalation period the average monthly bill for households will have increased $131.

Tamo said the Calistoga store now spends 34-40 percent of its monthly revenue on water and sewer fees. That’s almost twice as much as the family spends on running the same machines in their Santa Rosa laundry. 

“It’s just so much higher in Calistoga that we can’t afford to make some of the repairs we need to do,” he said.

Generally, in California it costs $1.50 and $3 to run a top-loaded coin-operated washing machine; a front-loaded machine can cost a dollar or so more.

Calistoga’s high water rates are the result of having to import about 70 percent of its supply from the State Water Project 50 miles away in Fairfield. Also, the customer base is small and yet still needs to support expensive improvements to the system.

There are no figures available for how many people use the Calistoga laundry, but random observations made this week and last suggest that the facility is highly utilized.

Irais Lopez-Ortega, a member of the Calistoga City Council, said the laundry is especially important to the town’s Latino community, which represents 40 percent of the city’s population of about 5,000.

“It would be a great loss to the community,” she said. “The next closest one is in St. Helena and it is very crowded.”

Julian Maldonado Ramirez, another customer and a Napa resident who was in town visiting his brother, said another rate increase will hit hardest on those who can least afford it.

“Increased costs are no good for anybody,” he said. “People have kids and it’s difficult for them to pay. I grew up in this area and I know a lot of people in Calistoga. This will not be good.”

Pat Merchant, whose family owns the laundry as well as the Indian Springs Resort and other properties, appeared before the City Council in December during the debate over the rate increase, noting that they had run the facility for more than 20 years before turning the operation over to the Tamo family.

“If they walk away, I’m going to have to close it,” she told the council.

This is not the first time that water rates have threatened the laundry. After a fire forced the property to close for a few months in 2021, the Merchants were concerned they would have to close the facility until the Tamo family agreed to take over.

Danny Merchant said at the time that they tried to find a better location in town for a new store but were unsuccessful. 

Tamo said he would be interested in participating in developing a new laundry in Calistoga, depending on the circumstances.  

Clark James Mishler contributed to this story.

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