Water, sewer rate hikes still not adopted

Ami Ridling

The Dunsmuir City Council meeting was standing-room only last Thursday when the councilors were scheduled to vote on the utility rate increases.

However, due to a number of unanswered questions surrounding the Proposition 218 protest process and the fact that the council had not reached a consensus on the recommendations of the Water and Sewer Task Force, the council postponed taking the matter to a vote.

The council members agreed to examine the issues brought to their attention by members of the task force and the public, and to hold a special meeting at a later time to revisit the rate increases.

Dunsmuir City Attorney John Kenny, who oversaw the city’s protest process, attended the meeting.

The city is proposing multi-year water/sewer rate increases to cover principle and interest payments on a $5.319 million USDA loan that the city wishes to apply for in order to fund water and sewer infrastructure projects.

The city held two protest periods regarding the proposed water and sewer rate hikes. The council admitted that the first protest process was not conducted properly, and it held a second one to ensure that the process was done correctly.

Acting city administrator Alan Harvey said that a total of 85 utility notification and protest forms that had been mailed out to Dunsmuir parcel owners and renters were returned to the city as undeliverable.

“Are you of the opinion that the second protest was conducted in a legally appropriate and effective manner?” Mayor Peter Arth asked Kenny.

“Yes,” answered Kenny, a reply that incited laughter among attendees.

Kenny noted that even if all 85 undeliverable notices had been returned as protests, the number of protests still would not have been sufficient to halt the city’s ability to vote to approve the rate hikes.

The city would have had to receive 806 protests in order for the rate increases to be off the table, because that number represents over half of the total parcels in Dunsmuir. At the close of the protest period on April 22, 541 protests were tallied.

At the Thursday meeting, Water and Sewer Task Force member Terese Meyer noted that the city included undeveloped parcels in its protest mailing list, and she questioned the legality of including them in the protest count since these properties do not have utility hookups.

Meyer read a portion of Kenny’s memorandum that he sent to city hall on Feb. 4 which described the procedure for gathering protest votes. “A majority protest exists if there is a protest vote for more than half of the parcels served,” he wrote in the document.

Meyer pointed out that undeveloped parcels are not parcels served, and therefore should not have been counted in the protest process. Meyer also stated that she conducted research on the mailing list and discovered that many mailing list recipients are deceased or have long ago moved away from the area.

“Where is the evidence?” Council member Mario Rubino asked Meyer.

Meyer said that it is the city’s responsibility to conduct its own research about its contact list.

“Nobody wants to see anybody denied their right to vote,” said Arth. “Let’s resolve this problem. Let’s not throw rocks at each other.”

Water and Sewer Task Force Chairman John Fisher said that it would not be appropriate to approve the rate increases until the council and the task force have reached a consensus on the group’s recommendations and until they are written into the resolution along with the rate increase schedule.

“The committee feels that since these recommendations are so critical in how the rate increases are implemented, they should be approved before the rate increases go into effect,” said Fisher.

The task force recommendations were compiled to ensure transparency and accountability of the rate increase process, and they include measures that will ensure that utility customers remain informed of revenue expenditures. One of the task force recommendations is for any revenue surplus from the rate increases to be credited or refunded back to customers.

At the meeting, task force member Rick Chan asked the council if it will adopt this recommendation, and asked that clarification be made as to the length of time that the rate increases will be imposed.

Chan also stated that the city should investigate the protest process and account for the undeliverable protest forms. He added that the task force recommendations should be adopted prior to the rate increases being imposed. “No one wants any surprises,” he said.

Several attendees stated that the protest forms contained misleading language, and that the Proposition 218 protest procedures should have been outlined more carefully in the mailings. A few pointed out that it was never clarified to citizens that failing to submit a protest for the rate increases automatically counted as a “Yes” vote by default.

Ultimately, the council voted to hold a meeting with members of the task force to determine if further investigation is warranted on the fairness of the protest period and to reach a consensus on the task force recommendations.

If the rate increases are adopted, wastewater fees will jump by 17 percent this July, and another 14 percent next July. Flat water fees would be raised by 38 percent this July, another 22 percent by next July, and an additional 18 percent beginning in July of 2012.