Council approves increase after protest effort falls short

Crescent City water customers will pay a higher bill starting in December.

The City Council unanimously approved water rate increases Tuesday after an effort failed to derail the increase with a Proposition 218 protest.

Monthly rates will increase by $6.16 - or 60 percent - for residential water customers who use 1,600 cubic feet of water per month. Rates will increase again by $3.79 in 2014, by $3.44 in 2015, by 72 cents in 2016 and 74 cents in 2017.

The rate increases are necessary to close a $649,000 budget gap in the city's water fund and enable the city to obtain loan financing for a $4.5 million five-year capital improvement

plan, according to city officials. Water rates have not been raised in over a decade.

Officials said the protest failed largely due to multiple protest letters being submitted for the same parcels. Leaders of the protest effort questioned the accuracy of the city's count, saying they were concerned that officials incorrectly disqualified some signatures coming from tenants. They threatened the city with legal action.

"What I did notice as an observer on Nov. 5 when the first 200 votes were calculated, out of those 200 calculated votes 113 were validated," said county resident Linda Sutter. "The rest were invalidated because they were not a ratepayer, meaning tenants. In essence, the tenants didn't have a right to protest, which is a violation of government code."

569 valid protests short

After four days of counting and verifying signatures, City Clerk Robin Patch determined that with 1,302 valid signatures, the Proposition 218 protest against the water rates failed. Opponents needed to submit protests from 1,871 parcels to block the increase. Patch said 3,741 parcels will be affected by the rate increase.

The city received a total of 2,244 protest letters.

The counting process was video-taped. When it came time for the video discs to be switched, about every 50 minutes, Patch said she took her hands off the protest letters.

During her report to the Council, Patch acknowledged Information Systems Administrator Fritz Ludemann and Debra Wright, an account clerk in the city's utilities department, for their help in the counting.Patch also acknowledged Crescent City Police Chief Doug Plack and Sgt. Erik Apperson for escorting her to and from the Wastewater Treatment Plant where the counting took place.

The city's Sept. 16 resolution, which started the Proposition 218 protest process, uses the language of the California Constitution, said City Attorney Bob Black. The resolution states that although only one protest will be counted per parcel, the protest can come from a property owner or tenant who is directly responsible for his or her water bill.

The city also accepted protests from tenants who were paying for water but whose bill was in their landlord's name, Black said. Those tenants submitted evidence of their responsibility along with their protest letter, he said.

"The problem with the protest was that hundreds of people submitted duplicate protests on parcels," Black said. "It wasn't a question of counting tenants or not counting tenants. That wasn't the reason it failed."

Lawsuit threatened

Former City Councilwoman Donna Westfall, a leader in the protest effort, brought to the Council's attention a September e-mail she received from Timothy Bittle, director of legal affairs for the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, which authored Proposition 218.

According to the e-mail, Bittle writes that Government Code 53755(b), which focuses on a proposed increase of an existing fee or charge for a property-related service, doesn't contain a requirement that the tenant be directly responsible to pay the water rate.

"If the only written protest for a parcel is submitted by a tenant, whether or not he is directly liable to pay the fee, the statute says it 'shall be counted,'" Bittle wrote in his e-mail. "Donna, feel free to forward this e-mail to your City Council, city attorney and/or citymanager to warn them that if the raw number of protests received is sufficient to defeat the proposed fee increase, and they disqualify tenant protestors merely because they are not the named subscriber in the city's billing records, the city may face a lawsuit from us."

Westfall read the e-mail to the City Council.

Hardship acknowledged

Council members Kathryn Murray and Rick Holley took issue with the opposition's comments. Holley acknowledged the efforts of opponents and said he understood that increasing water rates will be a hardship for customers.

"But to say we don't care about the people of this community is outrageous as far as I'm concerned," he said. "What we care about is trying to keep the integrity of our water system and make sure it's maintained in the future so our children inherit a utility that's workable and lends itself to good public safety."

Murray, who said she saw members of the protest campaign outside Safeway gathering signatures, questioned how well informed the opposition is about the issue.

"I heard people at Safeway asking people if they want to sign a protest letter simply by saying, 'Do you want your water rates lowered?' That's not even what it is about," Murray said, encouraging protesters to take a second look at a recent analysis of the water system and the city's Sept. 16 staff report. "It's really unfortunate that this effort didn't have an educational component to it. And I would hope you would read this information before you spout off on how much we do not care. This is one of the hardest things we have to do."

If the Council didn't approve the rate increase, the water fund was projected to be out of cash by January, according to Interim Finance Director Susan Mayer. The city owes the state $175,000 in a January payment of a state loan that paid for redundant water lines and increased capacity at the water tank near Washington Boulevard in 2000.

Earlier this year the City Council approved a $5.38 monthly increase to residential sewer rates. That rate increase was the last installment of a $30 increase that was approved by the City Council in 2007.

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