City Council set to raise sewage rates

ATASCADERO — A recent Atascadero News article which mentioned the lack of official public comment on a San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors item affecting local citizenry prompted one local resident to inquire whether their social media comments count.

While, “it counts to us,” seems a tad patronizing, the legitimate answer is a flat, “no.”

The difference in what residents are willing to tell their civic leaders and politicians in an informal setting and the effort it takes to go on the record in an official capacity, or even attend discussions, is one that Atascadero Mayor Heather Moreno seems to appreciate, as the City got set to hold another strategic planning workshop and Council members schedule attendance at a series of neighborhood outreach meetings, in late May and into June, through the Chamber of Commerce. Moreno was an early supporter of that increased public outreach after the last goal-setting meeting and since taking office has inquired often with the City’s attorney about how the council can act more quickly on residents’ concerns.

Despite encouragement, there was again no official public comment at the Council’s regular May 14 meeting, even on an agenda that promises to hit the pocketbooks of residents with homes and businesses connected to the City sewer system. And the Mayor noted as much from the dais adding that she assumed there were more people watching at home than were in the room on the fourth floor of City Hall.

For reference, the AM radio station KPRL continues broadcasts on the airwaves and streams audio online if the recently contracted video recording service from SLOSPAN fails to load at home.

The strict requirements of what constitutes a formally filed grievance is about to become much more important as the City prepares to have its  first ever, “rate hearings conducted pursuant to the requirements of Proposition 218.”

Atascadero residents may be unfamiliar with the requirements of the California voter-approved proposition from the 1990s, as they’ve had the uncommonly good luck not to have seen a sewer service rate increase in 25 years.  Councilman Charles Bourbeau called the quarter-century of steady pricing, “incredible,” adding that, “no one should be asking, ‘why we need to raise the rates now?’ They should ask, ‘why we haven’t?’”

Part of the answer is that it takes a lot of work to go through the process, and, in a municipality that’s been loath to spend public funds without the promise of replacement, they’ve been simply maintaining operating costs while taking incidentals out of reserve. What they haven’t been doing, said City Manager Rachelle Rickard, is accruing enough income to offset depreciation of their treatment plant and infrastructure.

Using technology and techniques dating to the 1970s which City Engineer Nick DeBarr called, “frankly antiquated,” they’ve been able to meet targets for treatment levels as set by law. Modernizations and operating costs over the next five years will see a need to raise some $23 million for the plant alone, said consultant Clayton Tuckfield, with lift stations and other infrastructure totaling some $50 million.

That could be accounted for with a rate increase of 19 percent spread over the five-year period, with units of use equivalent to multiples of what’s expected from a “single family dwelling unit” used as the “fair and equitable” formula for billing.  

While the Council was asked only to decide on what to do in the next calendar year, with Public Works continuing to develop plans for upgrades and financing, the consultant’s plan calls for steady rate increases topping out at an average of $50 monthly by 2029.

Where the terms of Proposition 218, and what it means to file a formal protest, become crucial will be a public hearing on July 9. If the majority of affected residents file a written protest, according to specific rules available from City Hall, the increase can be halted.

“That doesn’t mean just coming in and telling us you don’t like it,” Moreno said, clarifying with the City Clerk that more information will be sent out on mailers, but residents will still need to follow up.

While welcoming of public feedback, she added that she hoped residents understand the City's need for the money at this juncture.


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