CCWD rate plan panned

By Sean Janssen, The Union Democrat June 13, 2013 11:30 am

The Calaveras County Water District is preparing its annual budget to take effect next month with the assumption it will not impose steep rate hikes proposed last month.

A proposal to boost monthly sewer bills for about 4,800 customers from $67.50 to $77.63 and water rates for more than 12,500 customers from $39.50 to $49.38 s of Sept. 1 must survive a Proposition 218 protest and a public hearing scheduled July 10.

In a preliminary budget presentation at Wednesday’s board meeting, Director of Support Services Lynn Gentry outlined a $16.7 million operating budget, up from about $16.1 million in the current budget year set to expire June 30.

The increased cost is largely attributed to rising energy and fuel costs, retiree health payments and about $215,000 allocated to General Manager Mitch Dion’s request to add a water resources manager position to the staff and to contract for a district engineer for a six-month period.

The district engineer position is vacant following the retirement of Steve Hutchings. The district has not had a water resources manager since the controversial decision in March 2012 to terminate Ed Pattison and eliminate the position. The board majority cited a budget shortfall at the time but Pattison sued October 2012 in the Calaveras County Superior Court, claiming then-General Manager Joone Lopez discriminated against him and other male employees. The suit, removed to federal court in January, seeks compensation for lost wages, emotional distress and punitive damages. The board discussed the suit in closed session Wednesday as it has for several months.

“I can’t speak to that (controversy) because I wasn’t here at that time,” said CCWD General Manager Mitch Dion, hired in November 2012.

Upon Pattison’s firing, Lopez said she as general manager would pick up the water resources management duties with the assistance of Assistant General Manager Larry Diamond, Director of Utility Services and Engineering Bill Perley, Director of Financial Planning Jeffery Meyer and previously retained attorneys and consultants.

Dion said the water resources manager position will be advertised with a different job description than it had in the past.

“We have some people retiring and we need to have a succession plan to make sure we are protecting our resources, particularly the water rights,” he said in a brief interview after the meeting.

Though ostensibly separate matters, the proposed rates, which would climb as high as $109.64 for sewer and $66.84 for water in fall 2017, inevitably hung over the budget discussions Wednesday.

When Gentry talked about the decline in property taxes received by the district from a peak of $3 million to a projected $2.2 million next year, Director Jeff Davidson emphasized the point.

“That $800,000 would have done a lot of projects that are in here,” Davidson said, referring to a $5.3 million list of water and sewer system upgrades that will begin next year only if the rate hikes are adopted.

Perley added that despite the district’s much-publicized lack of a specific capital improvement and replacement fund, it did budget about $1 million annually to fix and replace worn infrastructure as part of operations costs before the bottom fell out of the economy.

“We lost that $1 million a year revenue source and so we don’t do the projects anymore,” he said.

Director Don Stump added that he feels devoting property tax revenue toward operating costs as proposed in the budget can be a dicey prospect given previous state government grabs to balance its own budget.

“I don’t trust the state as far as I can throw them,” he said. “In the future, I’d like not to see property taxes devoted to operations. That makes me very, very nervous.”

Recognizing how unpopular the rate hikes are, the board asked for staff to bring policy proposals at an upcoming meeting to ensure new revenue from an approved increase remains devoted only to infrastructure upgrades.

“We need to be crystal clear that the money we’re collecting is going for capital improvement projects,” Stump said. “I think it’s important our ratepayers understand we take it seriously and it doesn’t start slipping away from us.”

Directors also defended the $3 million new district office scheduled to open July 8 and much panned at a town hall meeting Monday in Arnold centered on the rate proposal.

“This entire (current) facility is out of compliance with (Americans with Disabilities Act) laws,” Davidson said, adding that it is about 60 years old and lacks adequate space and parking. “Our staff members are not prisoners. They need to be treated decently.”

Stump added that construction got put off for 22 years after it was first discussed.

“The ratepayers may not agree … but I consider it as an accomplishment,” he said.

Though the town hall drew a crowd of more than 100, no more than the usual handful of public members attended Wednesday’s board meeting.

Calaveras County Taxpayers Association President Al Segalla warned that if costs get too high, the district does have possible competition.

“There’s an upper limit,” Segalla said. “There’s a second alternative for people to have wells” and they may do so even where they are not permitted if they feel forced.

The district will host additional town hall forums on the rate hike, each at 6:30 p.m., on Tuesday, June 25, at Black Creek Center, 920 Black Creek Drive, Copperopolis, and Wednesday, July 26, at the Rancho Calaveras Clubhouse, 3995 S. Highway 26, Valley Springs. A final budget vote is planned for 9 a.m. on July 26 at district headquarters, 423 St. Charles St., San Andreas. The public hearing on the rate hike is set for 9 a.m. on July 10 at the St. Charles Street address.