To the Editor: ‘Who’s protecting public interest?’

At the April 3 Ridgecrest City Council meeting, the city manager stated that we have a tentative agreement with the Navy on the Wastewater Treatment Plant easement. This is similar to a statement the CM made four or five months ago at an Infrastructure Committee meeting. At the April 17 meeting I requested a copy of the tentative agreement. Again at the May 1 council meeting, I requested a copy of the tentative agreement. The council has thus far refused to release the agreement.

At the April 19, 2017, council meeting, two years ago, the city stated that the easement negotiations with the Navy began in 2012. Councilman Mower stated at that meeting that we needed to be finished with the negotiations by the end of 2017. It is now 2019.

The origin of the new Wastewater Treatment Plan dates back to 1993 when the usage of the WWTP exceeded 75 percent of the existing WWTP maximum capacity. The California Regional Water Control Board ordered the city and the Navy to design a plant expansion. The decline in our economy mitigated the need for the expansion during the remainder of the 1900s. Our economy did turn around in 2000, but sewer usage never exceeded available capacity. The state mandate to conserve water in 2010 further reduced sewer usage. We have not had a sewer plant capacity issue since then.

Following state-mandated water conservation, the city stated that the new plant was urgently needed because of deterioration of the existing plant; thus providing the justification for a significant fee increase. The sewer fee was raised from $120 to $360 per year several years ago. According to the CM at the April 3 council meeting, we now have a $27 million wastewater fund reserve, but we have no new WWTP, no selected location, no final design and no loan. We also have no schedule for the new WWTP. Perhaps the urgency for a new WWTP was overstated.

The $27-million reserve does not include the $6 million owed the wastewater fund by the city. Considering contracting delays, design issues and loan application delays, the new sewer plant could still be four or five years away. We have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on administrative fees, legal fees and overhead fees during the last few years negotiating with the Navy. The costs just keep going up with no end in sight.

The original demands made by the Navy in the draft agreement were ridiculous. No loan institution would give us a loan. Giving the Navy credit for making concessions to those demands is even more ridiculous. The CM now states the new tentative easement agreement is acceptable to loan institutions. I have yet to hear anyone claim that the new tentative agreement will be acceptable to the public, the group with the most at stake. The Navy will protect their interests. The loan institutions will protect their interests.

My question is simple — Who is protecting the public’s interest? I spoke to four of the five council members prior to the April 17 meeting. Not one of them had read the tentative agreement. Councilman Wallace Martin is the only one who has expressed an opinion publicly. Thank you, Wallace.

The city has had two prior disastrous sewer contracts with the Navy. It is time the council proactively manages the public’s money for the benefit of the public. Sharing the agreement with the public would be a good start.

It is time the public got involved. There is no public benefit to continue keeping the agreement secret.

Stan Rajtora

Story First Published: 2019-05-10