Massive fee hike questioned

Sewer disposal, treatment rate increase traced back to city’s raid on wastewater account

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

In light of a 2,000-percent fee increase to service vendors over a period of only three years, and no justification by city officials for the massive hike, locals are asking whether placing such an exorbitant burden on service providers, and therefore the residents, is merely an attempt to balance out the mismanagement of resources and questionably high salaries at City Hall.

Roger Begin, owner of Ridgecrest Sanitation, said that his numerous requests for information at the city have gone unanswered, thus crippling his abilities to operate sewer disposal services for city and county residents, as well as justify his rate increases to the customer base he has built up over 35 years of service in the Indian Wells Valley.

Begin said that decades ago there was no fee for dumping sewage, and the gates of the city-operated facility were open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The city first increased the fee to $1 per load, then to $10 per load — the cost in 2010. On July 1 that cost is scheduled to increase to $200 per load. At the same time, the hours of availability at the city have gone down to about 12 hours a week, he said.

After failure to engage city officials to give him any answers, Begin asked Kern County 1st District Supervisor Mick Gleason to attend a meeting with him. Gleason sent his local field representative, Denny Kline.

“My concerns are not only in the exponential increases to his costs, but the fact that the city has reduced availability of the dump,” said Kline.

“It’s an interesting dichotomy to say, ‘I’m going to jack up your fees, but then I’m going to close the gates so you can’t get in.’ Seems like a completely illogical breakdown and a self-fulfilling prophecy for failure.”

“I know that my fees will go up, and I’m perfectly happy to pay what’s fair,” said Begin. He said that he broached the subject with a former operator, who said that a $50-$60 charge would be more than adequate to offset whatever costs the city incurred.

“What I don’t understand is why after providing a service for 35 years, it is suddenly so much more expensive to do everything.

“I have showed the city two studies conducted by universities that justify sewer fees. They said they were irrelevant.

“I have asked the city to clarify why they increased the price to see if I can reduce the wear and tear to their facility. They didn’t respond.

“I’m not asking for a free ride — just open the gates and show us the information. In the meantime I have punitive damages stacking up because I am being forced into this unnecessary spending.”

Begin’s concerns echo those raised by residents, who are publicly protesting a tripling of fees provided by the same service to city residents.

While even the most ardent opponents acknowledge that an increase in the fee is necessary, most are pointing to the city’s controversial raid on the wastewater treatment fund as the real driving force behind recent and excessive rate hikes.

In 2006 the city began charging the lion’s share of the residential assessment for wastewater treatment to an administrative account that paid City Hall costs purportedly unconnected from the service residents were paying for on the tax rolls.

After the city was served by a charge of misappropriating funds by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, and the city failed to come up with documentation justifying the charges, the city was on the hook to pay back some $4.5 million as a loan.

Several citizens have suggested that the scheduled fee increases would not have been so dramatic if the city had not so excessively borrowed on that account.

Begin also voiced a parallel concern expressed by citizens, and gone unanswered by city officials, that such hefty fee increases were supporting the growing costs of city salaries.

The News Review sent a request to the city for an article published in February regarding city salaries. The finance department responded with a list that stated Wastewater Treatment Plant Operator John Bracken made more than $120,000 in 2012.

“This is way out of line if you look at operators at other facilities that do the exact same thing,” said Begin.

“In fact for a community of under 50,000 residents, everyone at City Hall is enormously overpaid for what they actually do.”

He said that this overpayment is even more stark in light of how unavailable city operators make themselves to local vendors.

Begin added that his concern can also be traced back to maintaining health and safety standards for such an isolated community with no other facility to provide a similar service. “What happens if you call me because septic is bubbling up out of the ground on the weekend? I can’t even come and clean it up if I can’t get the city to open their gates and let me empty one of my trucks.”

“This is a concern for our office because the preponderance of Mr. Begin’s customers are our constituents,” said Kline. “I have observed that he is asking the city for two things: an explanation of the increases, which seem dramatic, and a restoration of access, which has historically been 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The city responded to neither of these requests in the meeting I attended with Mr. Begin. To my knowledge, they still have not responded.

The city council is scheduled to consider the fee increase for residential customers at the next regularly scheduled council meeting, Wednesday, June 5, at 6 p.m. in City Council Chambers.

Story First Published: 2013-05-29