After the Dec. 13 public hearing, TUD agreed to send their proposed rate increase back to the drawing board. I applaud TUD General Manager, Pete Kampa and the Board of Directors for their willingness to listen to ratepayers. It’s particularly important to hear citizens concerns in these difficult economic times, especially during the holiday season. We all need to recognize that not all of us can equally absorb the proposed increase as it was presented in the October TUD notice.
I hope that the TUD Board of Directors, management and workforce will take time to reflect and choose to follow the example of budget ‘belt-tightening’ established by the City of Sonora and County of Tuolumne by looking internally, no matter how difficult, to make operational cuts before having to completely rely on ratepayers to absorb the losses over the last seven years related to the flattened housing market. TUD management and the Board of Directors should also consider reviewing their strategic plan and budget and clarify the condition of the system infrastructure with ratepayer involvement.
In 2003, a boom year for building, TUD brought in $970,000 in new service income adding 214 new water service ratepayers to the system. In 2004, new service and connection income began to plummet. Income was down to $172,508 in 2011, which means only 28 new water customers. TUD new service connection fees escalated in an attempt to recover the declining revenue. This has crippled growth. High connection fees have deterred housing and building starts.
There are developers with an interest in building senior and workforce housing. These projects have low-profit margins with long-term returns. The initial high connection fees keep them from building in Tuolumne County. We have the water, we need the work, and we need the housing. The current TUD strategic plan is out of sync with the current economy and is based on a few ‘boom’ years almost a decade ago.
At the Dec.13 board meeting, Kampa’s only appeasing gesture was to suggest removing three unfilled TUD positions from the budget. They were already considering eliminating these positions. This cut is only ‘the tip of the iceberg-budget cutting’ we need to see. As ratepayers, the burden is on us. We want a voice and to participate and understand what really needs to be done to provide clean water and at a reasonable rate. We also need to help our community grow economically, with practical, achievable goals.
We need to further examine TUD’s management, operations and budget:
A 50 percent rate increase, from $27.06 to $40.64, has not been clearly presented by TUD, without using fear tactics threatening complete system failure.
The current TUD overtime budget has increased 86 percent from $117,000 to $218,000.
Their 2011-12 budget includes a 3 percent wage increase. This sends the wrong message to ratepayers and to City and County employees willing to make sacrifices.
Any rate increase is going to encounter opposition. I think there should have been a longer period for the public to review and understand TUD’s reasoning for the proposed rate increase. I was blindsided by the rate increase and quickly heard from outraged friends, colleagues, neighbors and many other voices in this community. Something rare, but uniquely American happened in a very few days:
Almost 1000 people submitted ballots in opposition to the proposed rate increase.
A diverse and vocal population stepped forward to voice their outrage about how this increase would affect their pocketbook, as well as their neighbors.
Four members of the Sonora City Council personally publicly opposed the increase.
Dr. Ralph Retherford, a 10-year member of the Board, made a brief presentation on December 13th proposing to revise or remove nine TUD budget items that would eliminate any need for a rate increase. He has single-handedly tried to keep this current board in ‘checks and balances’ and needs help from a new board member.
An astounding 12 Tuolumne County citizens have stepped forward since the December Board of Directors meeting to submit their applications to fill just ONE vacant Board seat in an effort to better represent the voice of the community on the board.
If proved to be needed, we, as a community, need to pursue a compromise TUD rate increase plan. We need to take a detailed look at TUD’s financials. We need to be certain of our system’s infrastructure. We need to affirm that the TUD Board reflects a practical, financially sound, strategic plan. We need a new, clear voice on the TUD Board of Directors. A voice that is passionate, clear and committed to representing the ratepayers of Tuolumne County.
Bill Canning is the Mayor of Sonora. He is also the owner of C&N Construction in Sonora.