S.P. City Council suspends sewer surcharge increase for six months

October 19, 2012
Santa Paula City Council

What the public was told couldn’t be done was done Wednesday evening at a 20-minute special meeting when the City Council agreed to a six-month postponement in the sewer processing surcharge.

The scheduled November 1 increase would have almost doubled the rate of the sewage surcharge, from 58 cents per 100 cubic feet of water to $1.12, a cost added to the baseline charge of $77.21 per household. 

The processing fee was implemented on November 1, 2011, and when added to the baseline cost puts Santa Paula at the top of sewage rates charged in Ventura County. The sewer-processing surcharge has been the focus of public comment and criticism for more than a year. 

Residents were told a study would examine calculating rates to actual household - not landscape - water usage, but the issue languished. Later, the city and the council maintained they could not postpone raising the surcharge because rates had been established through a Prop. 218 protest vote and a 2009 council adopted ordinance, and that lowering rates would harm the city’s credit rating.  

Several speakers offered comment at the October 17 special meeting including Connie Tushla, who asked for assurances the delay in the increase would not cost the city more in the future or harm its bond rating. Tushla and Marsha Rea also questioned the duties and transparency of the newly formed Ad Hoc Committee - Mayor Bob Gonzales and Councilman Rick Cook volunteered for the committee - that will be studying water and sewer rates. 

Residents and business owners have long questioned the sewer surcharge added on top of utility rates - especially the basic sewer charges, established to help pay the tab on the privately owned plant that began operations in 2010, that have climbed in recent years. Some residents have questioned not only how the rate was calculated, but also the legality of charging for a service - processing sewage - over and above what is actually piped to the plant.

Councilman Fred Robinson made the motion to delay the rate increase and expressed “my concern that six months is not a very long time and this is a very complex issue,” with the “long-term goal” of establishing “more reasonable rates.”

Councilman Jim Tovias said the issues must be examined and solutions found, as “We have eight months... we need to utilize that time as well as we can.”

Since last year City Manager Jaime Fontes has been looking into alternatives to purchase or refinance the approximately $58 million wastewater treatment plant as a way to lower the loan’s interest rate and in turn lower utility users’ sewer rates.

Wednesday’s special meeting was the last until November 19. The council agreed at Monday’s regularly scheduled meeting to cancel the November 5 meeting.

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