In a forum Wednesday night on Petaluma's Measure U sewer-rate rollback ballot question, those on both sides of the issue sympathized with hard-hit ratepayers struggling to make do in these difficult financial times.

"There's no provision here for reducing the rates for people who are having a hard time making it ...That's what we're trying to stop here, them going over into the abyss as far as cost," said Jim Fitzgerald, one of the measure's main supporters.

Pamela Tuft, the city's interim water department head, called the goal of helping struggling residents admirable.

But "rolling back (rates) for every single customer back to 2006 and facing bankruptcy for the city is not a solution," she said.

Measure U on the Nov. 2 ballot asks Petaluma residents if they want to return wastewater rates to what they were on Jan. 1, 2006. Any future increases would have to be approved by a citywide vote.

Proponents of the measure – similar to ones passed by voters in Rohnert Park and Dixon – say the city needs to be sent a message that it is leaders are mismanaging the budget and specifically sewage treatment funds.

Opponents say passage would force the city to default on $128 million in low-interest loans used to finance the year-old, $160 million treatment plant. And they argue the measure may not be constitutional.

Measure U is a pared-down version of 2008's Measure K, which would have required a return to 2006 levels for both water and sewer rates. It also would have limited future rate increases. Voters soundly rejected it.

Petaluma's sewer rates, which average $63 a month, are in the middle of Sonoma County's nine cities. In 2011, the rates are anticipated to be about $80 a month. A rollback to 2006 levels would cut bills to about $43.

Bryant Moynihan, a former city councilman and a leader of the group supporting the measure, noted that Rohnert Park and Dixon's sewer rates went down with the passage of their measures, which are still in effect.

"We could do the same thing here in Petaluma with Measure U," he said. He said the measure is necessary to rein in waste and mismanagement of city money and to stop future rate increases.

Tuft said the public was involved in the planning of the facility from the beginning, and now that it is built, the city has to fulfill its financial obligations.

"The Ellis Creek facility was designed with an 80-year operational lifespan in mind," Tuft said. "Measure U would destabilize the financial framework necessary to support the system."

The plant replaced an outdated, inadequate facility on Hopper Street that wasn't capable of treating the city's waste to current state requirements, said Rem Scherzinger, a city water engineer. From 1999-2004, the city paid about $160,000 in discharge violations.

Moynihan said if voters pass Measure U the city can use other funds to pay off the loans and fund operation of the plant.