Council passes sewer fee increase

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Council passes sewer fee increaseAn aggressive schedule for increasing the sewer fees paid by property owners was passed by the Ridgecrest City Council, despite protests from citizens who claim the city’s approach lacked technical justification for the increase and offered no assurances that the increased revenue stream into the previously raided wastewater fund would be protected from further misappropriation.

Although the increase was protested in writing by about 1,000 property owners and in person by everyone who spoke up at last Wednesday’s public hearing, most acknowledged that some increase was necessary. For nearly 20 years, property owners have been paying a $10-per-month fee as part of their annual property taxes.

During that time the city built up a reserve in a dedicated wastewater account that was intended to fund only maintenance and repairs to the sewer system. In 2006 the city began charging upwards of 80 percent of those annual fees to offset administrative costs in City Hall.

Those charges were challenged in a lawsuit filed by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. Since the city could not provide documentation justifying the charges, the city agreed to pay back the $4.5 million over the course of 30 years.

A consultant hired by the city to propose a rate increase said that if the city had made gradual increases each year to keep up with inflation, the rate would be about $19 per month today. Many residents questioned how that justified tripling the rate over the next two years to nearly $30 per month.

But the most oft-repeated concern was what assurances the citizens had if the city had would spend the money on repairs given the previous raiding of the wastewater fund.

The consensus voiced by the council was that the city needed to make up for the previous decades of inaction by bringing the rates up to speed and having plans in place to respond to future needs —in terms of both repairs and facility replacement.

“If we had not borrowed that money, there would have been absolutely no change in the rate increase,” said Councilwoman Lori Acton. She said the city needs to build a new plant and to begin replacing the existing collection system.

“If we were slowly raising fees in small increments, we wouldn’t be talking about this today,” said Vice Mayor Jason Patin. “We should not sit here once every 17 years saying we have to raise the rate 300 percent … it’s our responsibility is to make sure this never happens again.”

Patin added that the city needs to replace about 80 of its 160 miles of pipe, which he said costs about $1 million a mile. The consultant later corrected that cost to about $300,000 per mile, and City Mana-ger Dennis Speer added that the city has scoped only about 3 percent of its lines.

“Not raising the rates would be irresponsible,” said Mayor Pro Tem Chip Holloway.

He added that the current plant is operating at approximately 68 capacity and that the city needs a plan to replace it. “I don’t think anyone wants the state to come in and tell us how to solve our problem.”

From the public microphone, Jerry Taylor said he believed the council was misinterpreting the public concern over the rate increase.

“I am not here about $240 a year, I’ll write you a check today. My point is: where is the money going? Just give us the plan,” said Taylor.

“The truth is you don’t know what needs to be replaced. You have not given citizens any assurance about how you are going to track progress. You are just saying ‘please give us money because we need it.’ Well you’ve had millions of dollars to build a plan. How do you know how much you need if you don’t know what the plan is?”

Robert Eierman pointed out the similarities between the public hearing over raising sewer fees and the one held in 2009 proposing increasing trash fees and placing it on tax rolls.

“What you really have is a credibility problem. All you have to do is sit down and get this right, and people will get on board.”

A former civil engineer said that the way repairs are typically conducted is that you replace pipes as they fail. “To say you need to replace so much of the lines … I don’t think that’s how you should be approaching this.

“We need a rate increase, but putting an emphasis on the collection system and using scare tactics to up the amount is ridiculous.”

Stan Rajtora said he wants to see an oversight committee established to ensure that the wastewater fund is protected in the future. With the exception of Mayor Dan Clark, the council said they would not oppose such a committee since it would put a strain on the staff. Others added that a committee is unnecessary since spending money on anything other than wastewater expenses is illegal.

“I am not against a rate increase, but I am against having one without the right engineering study and the right plan,” said Jim Fallgatter. “Look at what you’ve already presented — you haven’t the faintest idea of what you’re really up to. Case in point, Mr. Patin vacillated between a $40-million and a $100-million figure to scare us.”

He said that no one gets away with conducting business that way in the real world.

“You are trying to cover a major credibility gap based on previous council actions. This is not about individuals, but how those actions went down. Do the right thing — come back in six months and you’ll have half these people gone because they’ll know you did the right thing.”

Michael Neel said that the city could start saving money by reducing the salary of the $120,000-per-year plant operator. Finance Director Rachelle McQuiston said that she did not know where that figure came from. That was a figure provided to this reporter by McQuiston, but at the meeting she said the cost included not only salary but benefits. (The 2011 salaries listed on the state controller’s website, http://publicpay.ca.gov/, also lists the operator’s salary at $119,000.)

“I don’t really want to do a sewer increase because I’m worried about that fund being borrowed from again,” said Renee Westa-Lusk. “I want full transparency. If you are going to borrow from it again, I want to know about it.”

Joe Haberman, who manages local apartment units, said he was concerned about how that would impact the rental market. “I’m being squeezed here in a number of ways.”

“What assurances do we have as citizens of Ridgecrest that you are not going to raid the sewer fund again?” asked Andy Anderson. “Nobody got an answer for that? I think you’ve got to give citizens an absolute guarantee that won’t happen again.”

“I am watching how you’re reacting to the people who come up here — rolling your eyes and shaking your heads. That doesn’t help with the perception that you’re not listening to people. I find that concerning,” said Tom Wiknich.

Fallgatter said that the apparent arrogance from the council is disturbing.

“How many people have come up and said, ‘You’ve done your homework, you’ve got your numbers straight, you’ve done your studies, we can support this.’ How many citizens? Zero.”

He added that he had received an e-mail that day from a councilmember who complained about the “cesspool” of citizens who come up and raise issues at council meetings. “Those were the words from one of your members. We are a ‘cesspool’ of troublemakers. What do you think about that?”

When City Clerk Rachel Ford said that the city had received 953 protest votes from the 8,500 notices sent out, Taylor pointed out that that was more than the city had received about trash — and that the city had elected not to raise those fees during that hearing.

Clark said that since only 11 percent officially protested the increase, he believed that 89 percent of property owners were in favor of it.

Councilmember Jim Sanders said that he appreciated the comments, but that the fee increase was necessary.

Acton said she resented being called incompetent by the public. “You forget that we have all these hours in the day that we do research and talk to the experts. I’ve asked these questions. We’re relatively intelligent people,” she said.

Patin said he knew that he was the person Wiknich and Fallgatter referred to when they complained about the council’s demeanor. “I can’t help it. I have severe ADD. I’ve struggled with it since I was a kid. Give me a little latitude. It’s truly a medical issue.”

He also said he did not understand why people kept bringing up the distrust. “These things happened in the past.”

Some council members added that the rate could always be lowered if necessary.

The council voted 5-0 to adopt the five-year schedule of fee increases. The fees will increase 60 percent in 2014, 50 percent in 2015, 40 percent in 2016 and 3 percent in both 2017 and 2018.

Story First Published: 2013-06-12