Opponents of increase say they've got enough signatures

Community activists leading a campaign against a proposed water rate hike say they have gathered enough signatures to halt the city's plans.

But City Clerk Robin Patch and her colleagues are still in the process of determining if each letter is valid, according to City Attorney Bob Black. They may not come back with the results until later today, he said.

"They got part way through the examination of the protests," Black said on Monday evening. "Then they interrupted it because they were only a little less than half way through it. They'll take it up again tomorrow at 8:30 a.m."

Opponents of the rate increase have gathered 2,203 protest signatures, said former City Councilwoman Donna Westfall. During a public hearing, Westfall handed a small cardboard box containing the signatures to the city clerk.

For a protest to successfully halt the rate increase, the city needs to receive letters from 1,871 parcels, Black said. A protest letter is valid if it states the parcel number, has a signature and a printed name and is a statement of protest, he said.

Under Proposition 218, only one protest letter per parcel can be accepted. Black said once city staff have determined the actual number of letters they have received, they will begin matching them up with the actual parcels they came from.

"There could be multiple signatures for one parcel and that only counts as one no matter how many signatures there are," he said. "They have to match each signature to a parcel and then determine whether that parcel has already been protested for. It could take numerous hours all told."

The Council in September unanimously approved increasing monthly water rates by $6.16 - or 60 percent - starting in December for the average residential customer who uses 1,600 cubic feet of water per month. Rates would increase again by $3.79 in 2014, $3.44 in 2015, 72 cents in 2016 and 74 cents in 2017.

The additional revenue would pay for upgrades to make the system more reliable. This includes making an elevated tank on Wonder Stump more earthquake resistant.

Following the Council's decision, water customers had 45 days to submit protest letters, one per parcel. The valid protests came from property owners or tenants who are directly responsible for paying their water bill.

If rates aren't increased, Crescent City's water fund will be out of cash by January and it won't be able to make a state loan payment in February, according to Interim Finance Director Susan Mayer. The water fund's projected deficit was $417,000 when the city adopted its 2013andndash;14 budget in June. The current projected deficit is $649,000, according to Mayer.

Increasing the water rates will not only allow the city to make its loan payment, it will be in a better position to pursue financing to pay for $4.5 million in capital improvement projects over the next five years, said Public Works Director Eric Wier.

Mayer said if the city did not increase its water rates, it would have to look at other avenues for closing the $649,000 deficit, including cutting services that are funded by its general fund.

"County residents, city residents and the prison share a benefit of operating one system," she said. "If these rates are not implemented the Council will have difficult policy choices to make."

Most of the residents who spoke out at Monday's meeting reiterated what they told the Council in September, that they couldn't afford a rate increase. Some pointed out that even though they're on city water, county residents don't have the ability to vote for Council members. Others simply balked at Mayer's warning that if the Council didn't raise the rates now, they would have to make cuts to services paid for by the general fund later.

"How about cutting some expenses," said county resident John Stetson. "It's not a matter of less revenue, it's that expenditures have exceeded by more than a quarter million for three years."

City resident Ellen Hawken said the rate increase will be difficult for her because she's on a fixed income.

"When the sewer rates came up, I gave up the paper," she said. "When they went up again I gave up magazine subscriptions. When they went up again I gave up the Internet. It seems to me the city can give up something."

Not everyone was opposed to the rate increases, however. Crescent City Fire Chief Steve Wakefield said if a successful protest results in a water system that fails, residents' fire insurance will increase by 30andndash;40 percent.

"This is something everybody should think about," he said. "This could cost way more than a rate increase."

Crescent City Planner Blake Inscore said he wasn't upset about the rate increase, but about the "mismanagement" of past City Councils that balanced the water fund budget by dipping into reserves.

"This has been kicked down the road for far too long," he said. "We have to do something."

Reach Jessica Cejnar at jcejnar@triplicate.com.