City moves forward with fee increase

City moves forward with fee increaseThe Ridgecrest City Council unanimously approved at last week’s meeting an aggressive fee-increase schedule to support upgrades and repairs to the wastewater treatment facility and sewer lines. The fees will not be implemented until property owners go through due process outlined in Proposition 218, which establishes a public hearing and protest period.

Mike Hildebrand from the consulting firm Malcom Pirnie presented the findings of a wastewater rate study, which essentially stated that the city was charging far below the regional median rate, since it had not increased rates in nearly 20 years and had an insufficient reserve to fund repairs.

The presentation outlined several different scenarios for increasing the fees, the most drastic of which showed 100-percent increases in both 2014 and 2015 to see rates increase from about $10 per month to about $35.37 within the next two years.

The council eventually adopted a rate schedule that would see rates increase 60 percent in 2014, 50 percent in 2015 and 40 percent in 2016, with a 3-percent rate increase each year after that.

While the general sentiment from the public was that some rate increase was necessary, some argued that the city would not have had to implement such drastic hikes if it had not depleted the wastewater reserve fund by borrowing some $4.5 million —which is being paid back over the course of 30 years.

Hildebrand noted that fees would need to increase in any case. He said in his presentation that the city has so far taken a reactive position to needs, but needs to take a preventive approach. “This is more expensive in the short term, but pays off in the long run.”

If the city continues to defer repairs, it runs the risk of system failure. On top of the more-expensive costs of that level of repairs, the city also risks regulatory fines and actions from the state, which could even take the administration of the system out of the city’s hands and impose its own fees.

City officials state that video scoping of the lines already shows significant deterioration, which poses a health and safety risk to citizens.

“Sewer rates have not been adjusted since 1994, which was also the last time the city conducted a rate study,” said Hildebrand. “If sewer rates had been updated congruently with the Consumer Price Index, the rates today would be $19.55.”

The urgency for a decision at last week’s meeting was driven by the requirements of Prop 218, which dictate a 45-day notice for the public hearing. The city will hear public comment at its regularly scheduled meeting on June 5 and is expected to make a decision that night.

Property owners are receiving notices of the fee increase in the mail. That notice also serves as a protest ballot. Receipt of 50-percent-plus-one of those ballots coming back with a vote against the fee increase will prevent it from going through.

Story First Published: 2013-04-24