Candidates Forum: High water/sewer rates, Career Center transfers addressed

September 12, 2012
Santa Paula News

Three candidates for the Santa Paula City Council finished up the questions when they met for the first time at a forum held August 23 at the Knights of Columbus Hall.

Latino Town Hall and CAUSE sponsored the Candidates Forum. Former Mayor Dr. Gabino Aguirre moderated the event that featured pre-prepared - and pre-screened by the candidates - and audience questions, ranging from employment and streets to the firing of Police Chief Steve MacKinnon and housing.

Candidate Duane Ashby, a corporate trainer and financial planner, was unable to attend due to business travel. Incumbents Fred Robinson, CEO of the nonprofit Arc, and insurance agent Jim Tovias as well as challenger Martin Hernandez, chief aide to Supervisor Kathy Long, were on hand for the forum.

At times, incumbent candidate comments seemed to focus more on accusations against Ventura County than fixing problems in Santa Paula.

Aguirre noted Santa Paula has the second highest water and sewer rates in Ventura County, and “In a few months” some rates will rise. In fact, by the time voters go to the polls November 6 the monthly sewer processing fee - implemented last year at a cost of 58 cents per 100 cubic feet of water, approximately 740 gallons - will have almost doubled to $1.12 per 100 cubic feet. The second increase goes into effect November 1.

Citizens have complained to the council that the new fee was supposed to follow the City of Ventura’s model of a usage baseline using the three rainiest months of the year. That model has never been studied by Santa Paula, and citizens continue to pay for sewer processing even for landscape watering.

Another issue is the sewer plant itself: the approximately $58 million plant was privately financed and is owned and operated by that same company. The sewer bills of Santa Paulans were raised in 2009 to $59.39 a month, and the next year the rate was increased to more than $77 a month. 

Council incumbent Robinson spoke about the possibility of “refinancing” the sewer plant, noting, “Rates are too high... Santa Paula has an adequate water supply,” but chlorides must be addressed. Robinson said the state is aware that chlorides are a “regional issue,” but the fix would be expensive. He noted the city is also looking at “recycled water” uses that could also offset utility bills, but “We must refinance that plant and lower the rates; that would be my priority.”

Hernandez said he has been involved with the county watershed coalition, including the subcommittee examining chloride impacts to the Santa Clara River. The groups “look at priorities and opportunities,” and have been successful in securing $80 million for project funding. Santa Paula, noted Hernandez, “has been absent from that table 80 to 90 percent” of the meetings. He noted that Fillmore’s new wastewater treatment plant is publicly owned, which allowed them to secure bond funding for the facility and federal grants not available to a private enterprise.

Tovias’ “objective is to stabilize rates and also pay back money to the citizens,” now, he said, that city finances are on firmer ground. “We have to move,” and Tovias said he expects in September or October that not only will the wastewater treatment plant be refinanced, but also that the city will “pay back money to the citizens.”

Another issue was the transfer of workers from the county’s Santa Paula-based Job & Career Center, which also provides social services. Tovias said the council “probably learned about three months ago that the county was going to pull 20 to 25 positions out of Santa Paula.... It would have been great,” he added, “if Supervisor Long’s office” had contacted Santa Paula officials, something Tovias said did not occur. Communication, he added, is key.

The panel was asked how they would ensure the county meets the needs for social services.

Ventura County, said Robinson, “gave us two things in the past... the jail” on Todd Road, which opened in 1995, and “the dump on the east,” the 10-fold expansion of the Toland Road Landfill approved the same year by supervisors. “I am getting tired,” of unincorporated areas surrounding the city being used for such facilities, said Robinson, and “It’s time for Santa Paula to say no mas, no more.”

As the father of a mentally ill son, Robinson said he spent considerable time making appropriate services locally available. And, “I will become public presence number one” when issues that could affect the city are discussed on the county level. “It’s got to stop,” added Robinson.

Hernandez said the transfer of workers from the Job & Career and social services center was created by the state funding cutbacks that necessitated finding “efficiencies.” Computer technology has also advanced, and Hernandez said he has not heard complaints centered on service delays.

The dump, he added, was “not dumped by the County of Ventura, but rather by the Ventura Regional Sanitation District” that owns and operates the facility. In addition, he noted that the council’s VRSD board representative “should be there more often” for meetings to guard the interests of Santa Paula.  

“We easily forget about the things the county has done for us,” including purchasing the bankrupt Santa Paula Hospital, closed in 2003 and reopened by the county in 2006. The hospital, he added, has “been operating in the black for a number of years... if it wasn’t for the county stepping up” and partnering with the city, the hospital would not know be offering “incredible services.”

During closing statements Tovias said he had “no idea what I was getting into” when he was initially elected to the council. What followed was “making decisions that were tough; I have no agenda,” then or now, but Tovias said his business background “helped steer us from a financial quagmire.” Jobs for Santa Paulans remain a “big issue,” and Tovias said he also supports the SPUHS/SPESD districts’ Unification measure to be decided by voters.

Robinson noted it is only in a democracy where “We can come out, have some differences of opinion and share ideas... we all love Santa Paula.” Like Tovias a four-year incumbent, Robinson said his term was “dominated by huge budgetary problems I think are behind us... and we’re on the precipice of great things in Santa Paula,” including the development of Limoneira East Area 1 “and other things on the horizon.” If reelected, Robinson said it would his last council term.

“It is my experience, skills and abilities that make me the perfect candidate,” and Hernandez said his broad involvement in committees and collaboratives can be considered “a model of networking and experience that would benefit our community.” He added he is responsive to citizen and city concerns. Hernandez’s platform is enhancing public safety, establishing fiscal accountability, professionalism and high standards in every city department, and “economic opportunity for every person in the community.”

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