Public calls for wastewater update

Lack of progress after sewer fee hike called into question

Public calls for wastewater updateBy BRIAN COSNER

News Review Staff Writer

The city of Ridgecrest has reached a tentative easement agreement with the Navy in regard to a new wastewater treatment plan, according to City Manager Ron Strand. But it’s been seven years since the city raised the sewer fees to fund the project and some members of the public are questioning why it’s taking so long to get the project moving.

“Going through some old documents, I discovered that the origin of the wastewater treatment plant actually dates back to 1993 when the plant exceeded 75 percent of its maximum capacity,” said Stan Rajtora during public comment at Wednesday’s city council meeting. He added that a combination of factors, including water conservation efforts, have since reduced the strain on the treatment plan.

“But if we go back to 2010, the city claimed we still needed a new plant even though we’re well below the capacity because the plant is deteriorating. We were told the wastewater treatment plant was on its last legs and if we didn’t do something soon, we’d have a bad emergency.”

Since then, sewer fees have tripled from $120 to $360 per year and the city has amassed some $27 million in the wastewater fund with little tangible progress.

“The only thing we’ve accomplished to do, besides a couple of technical reports from contractors, is build a major slush fund,” said Rajtora. “It’s time for the public to be involved in what’s going on.”

Rajtora has called for the tentative Navy agreement to be placed on a future agenda for public discussion.

Strand said that the council is planning to bring the agreement back to an Infrastructure Committee meeting.

“But I don’t know how appropriate it is to bring negotiations with the Navy into the open,” said Strand.

“I’m wondering if we can present it to the public to whatever level is legally appropriate,” said Vice Mayor Wallace Martin.

“The public is going to pay for this thing. The public should have an input,” said Rajtora.

“Let’s face it. If we were a business, there wouldn’t be one member on this panel who would have a job tomorrow. It’s ridiculous to continue with the way we’re going – not having a schedule, not knowing what we’re doing.”

“It’s just fair that the public know, after seven years, where we are going with this,” said Martin. “Do we need to continue … or draft something new? I think Stan’s request is perfectly valid.”

“There’s no legal reason not to release [the agreement],” said Rajtora. “It’s up to the council to decide – do you want to keep the public in the dark, or do you want to release the information/”

Member of the public Mike Neel also commented on the topic.

“Seven years later we’re not even close to starting the process and yet we’re still collecting the fees,” he said. “We’re close to the point where that increased sewer fee is bordering on fraud to the public.”

Neel argued that the fee just added to the public’s lack of confidence in how the city manages its funds.

He also brought up the failure of the recently proposed parks assessment district as another example.

“When something gets voted down with 80 percent no votes … I would say that amounts pretty much to the public taking you out, Mr. Strand, and dunking your head in the fountain pool outside,” said Neel. “It’s not surprising that people all over California, Ridgecrest included, are just tired of being taxed. All of those little bits have stacked up to quite a bit.”

Strand waited until the end of the meeting to further comment on the topic.

“We meet with the Navy again tomorrow to discuss more on the easement agreement,” said Strand.

He said there were only “a couple more issues” to be addressed before the agreement would be approved and that the Navy made a “significant amount” of exceptions that it doesn’t normally make for the city.

Future editions of the News Review will report updates on wastewater treatment plant progress.

Story First Published: 2019-05-03