In a split vote that came after much public opposition, the City Council voted 3-2 to move forward with the proposed water rate increases for Turlock residents that will take place over a five-year span.
Included in the 24,000 notices sent out to both property owners and renters in Turlock regarding the proposed water rate increases was a protest ballot which residents could fill out and return to the city clerk’s office. According to state law, should the written protests represent a majority of the parcels affected – or roughly 8,770 ballots for Turlock – then the City Council could not move forward with the item, and no new fees could be imposed. However, after the public hearing had closed, the city clerk reported that the city had only received approximately 600 protest ballots – well beneath the amount needed to stall the water rate increase process.
Although many residents at the meeting complained that they were not given ample time to respond to the proposed water rate increases and felt that the process was being rushed, city staff and council members noted that the council had been discussing the proposal back in November and December, when they opted to move forward with sending out parcel notices in city water bills and establishing the hearing date for March 25.
Additionally, Municipal Services Director Michael Cooke pointed out that although state law only requires the city to send out the mailed notices as a satisfactory means of notifying the public, the city had gone above and beyond that notification process by also holding public workshops on the proposed rate increases in addition to publishing notices through local media outlets.
“The fact that we received over 500 protest ballots does show that people are paying attention,” said Cooke. “That amount of feedback is pretty typical of cities our size.”
However, Councilmember Bill DeHart did not feel that the 600 received protest ballots were representative of the whole community, expressing his desire to extend the amount of time for Turlock residents to protest the proposed rate increases.
“We must honor the public’s effort to respond,” said DeHart. “I understand that infrastructure is crumbling around us, but we should recognize their efforts and find a way to obtain funds, but not on the backs of those who can’t afford it. I want to say sorry to my colleagues, but I don’t feel we did good enough to inform the public of what it really is that we’re voting on.”
Mayor John Lazar disagreed with DeHart, saying that he held high respect for the efforts made by city staff to notify the public, and felt that they had done more than what was required of them by state law to make the matter as accessible as possible to the community.
Although DeHart and Councilwoman Amy Bublak wanted to postpone the resolution to allow more time for public participation and protest, Councilmembers Steven Nascimento and Forrest White joined Mayor Lazar in stressing the importance of moving forward with the rate structure changes immediately.
“This shouldn’t be postponed because we need to step up as a council and make those tough decisions on behalf of the community, and it’s not always easy or something we’d like to do, but I don’t want to pass this on to the next group of leaders who will have to do even more extensive increases or adjustments to the water system just because we didn’t take action now,” said Nascimento.
Echoing Nascimento’s sentiments, Mayor Lazar said that even if they decided to “kick the can down the road” the matter would just become a bigger issue to pick up at another time.
“We have to move forward with this if we’re looking out for the best interest of the community, and for the future of Turlock’s water system,” said Lazar.
Many of the public opposition came from Turlock residents who felt frustrated with continued bill increases in every aspect of their lives, saying that although the increase could be as little as three to five dollars per year, the costs would accumulate and make paying monthly bills difficult without increasing wages.
“My wife and I moved here in 2010 and bought a house, but now I’m wondering if we’re going to have to move now,” said resident Andrew Hawthorne. “The state just committed $687 million in drought money, isn’t there any way you could just call the Governor and ask for some of that, instead of asking residents? Even though it’s only $5 more, it all accumulates and I’m just afraid that we may not be able to afford it, or others who are on a fixed income.”
Although Cooke says that the proposed water rate increases would result in less water usage while urging Turlock residents to conserve water, the change in rate structure is not solely due to the ongoing drought plaguing the state. According to the Cooke, the purpose of the rate increase is to ensure future revenues meet the projected expenditures in the city’s Water Enterprise Fund. Such expenditures include operations and maintenance costs, future capital costs related to improving water quality and supply, and existing debt service obligations.
While the city has made reductions in operations and capital expenses, a structural deficit remains in the city’s water fund after the city saw a decline in revenue, while also making necessary improvements to the water system such as new wells, water storage tanks and installing water meters. Although the city relied on $560,000 in 2011-12 from the rate stabilization reserve to meet its minimum debt coverage requirements, city staff have stressed that such deficit spending is not sustainable in the long term and may adversely impact the credit rating of the city’s Water Enterprise Fund.
The funds collected from the water rate increase will not go towards the city’s Surface Water Treatment Plant that has been in discussions with the Turlock Irrigation District since the late 1980s, however, will enable the city to make necessary capital improvements to the entire water system.
The proposed changes would see six rate increases take place over the next five years, with the first increase taking effect July 1. The second increase is scheduled for Jan. 1, 2015, with the remaining increases occurring annually thereafter until 2019. Compiled of three primary charges, the initial proposed rate structure in July would charge a single/multi-family residency a commodity charge of 48 cents per 1,000 gallons, a capacity charge of $17.50 a month, and a customer charge of $2.20 per month.
Cooke says that the capacity charge, which varies by meter size, recovers approximately 60 percent of revenues, while the commodity charges, which include three different groups of customer classes, recover approximately 34 percent. The remaining 6 percent of revenues is recovered by the customer charge.
In a 3-2 vote, with Bublak and DeHart voting in opposition, council members opted to move forward with the item, which is expected to come back to the council for a final reading on April 8.
To learn more about the proposed water rate increases, or view the water bill estimator for residential single family water bills under the new rate structure, visit www.ci.turlock.ca.us/citydepartments/municipalservices/rateincrease.asp.