An official from the county Clerk-Recorder’s Office will be in counting mode in Cambria on Friday, Feb. 12, to help tally protests filed by ratepayers against a proposed increase in cost of water and sewage-treatment service.
Jerry Gruber, general manager for the Cambria Community Services District, confirmed the arrangement Tuesday, Jan. 19, saying a deputy county clerk will “assist the district with counting the protest ballots.”
Those protests, which must include specific information according to the state’s Proposition 218, can be submitted at the district office (1316 Tamson St., Suite 201); by mail to CCSD, Attn: District Clerk, P.O. Box 65, Cambria CA 93428; or in person at the district’s Jan. 28 regular meeting or the Feb. 12 hearing.
The district has provided no formal protest form, but the watchdog group Cambrians for Fiscal Responsibility has been handing out its version at various venues and by other means.
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Proposition 218 rules specify that stopping the rate hikes would require official protests from 50 percent of affected customers, plus one. According to Monique Madrid, CCSD administrative services officer, it would take 1,969 protests to stop the water-rate hike and 1,915 protests to stop the sewage-treatment rate increase. The gap is because some Cambria properties still have septic systems.
Representatives for the district and protest organizers at the Cambrians for Fiscal Responsibility group say they don’t know how many protests have been submitted so far.
Protest letters are left unopened and kept “in a locked box in a locked room” until they’re tallied at the hearing, Gruber said.
If the protest effort falls short, the board could approve the new rates Feb. 12, and those rates would take effect March 1.
For details on the proposed rates and the district’s reasons for them, go to www.cambriacsd.org.
The process allows only one protest per parcel, according to rate consultant Alex Handlers. So, if a property’s renter and owner both protest, or several tenants in a multifamily housing unit on one meter all protest, or if several owners of one parcel protest, each of those situations still would only be counted as one protest.
This is a familiar process for the district, which has undergone several rate-increase processes in the past decade. One of those attempts failed; in 2007, Cambrians defeated the increase proposal and in doing so, may have made history, becoming the state’s first larger community to turn back rate increases under Proposition 218.
In another count that was squeaker tight, the board eventually rescinded the increase it had approved based on the closeness of the vote.
Why an increase?
Gruber, Handlers, Finance Manager Patrick O’Reilly and district directors say CCSD needs to balance the water and wastewater books by raising rates because costs to provide the services exceed the revenue taken in by the two departments, which are supposed to be self-sufficient.
The four-year drought made that existing situation even worse, according to the officials, because Cambrians set state records for water conservation in 2015, cutting their consumption by an average of up to 43 percent.
That was good for the aquifer, but not so good for the district’s bottom line, because expenses for running the departments didn’t decrease as much as the income did.
CCSD officials say the district hasn’t adopted any increases to its regular water and sewer rates in more than six years, and those regular rates have only been raised four times in the past two decades.
Handlers said the increases would restore balanced budgets in the two departments, help fund the highest-priority water-system capital needs and provide minimal funding for repairs, replacements and rehabilitation of aging infrastructure. The district plans to seek grants and low-rate subsidized funding to help pay for the multimillion-dollar upgrades being regulators are requiring at the wastewater treatment plant.
Cambrians for Fiscal Responsibility (CFR) will continue leading the protest movement. Representatives periodically distribute protest forms/information sheets in various ways, including at an information table in front of the Bridge Street post office and at the Friday farmers market.
The two-sided green forms include some of the group’s “Reasons to protest the CCSD’s proposed rate increases.” Among those concerns are:
▪ A clause in the proposal that allows the district to raise rates by up to 4 percent annually over the next five years.
▪ Concern about how CCSD would spend the proposed rate increases and how the district has managed its finances in the past (such as paying a lobbyist, consultants and a public information officer). The $13 million Sustainable Water Facility (formerly referred to as the emergency water supply project) cost more than anticipated, and CFR representatives have said in the past they have concerns about the plant itself and how the district will repay the loan and pay for operation, maintenance and the process of getting a permanent permit for the plant.
▪ CFR says increases would create financial hardship on “many residents of Cambria who live on fixed incomes, with little or no means to absorb increased living costs.”
▪ Under the proposed rates, residential consumers pay a base rate and a charge for every unit used, rather than having four or six units covered by the base rate (as is the case now). CFR says that change would be especially noticeable for ratepayers who have conserved the most and used the least amount of water each billing period. Some district customers could find their basic fixed and quantity water charges more than doubling (not counting the fixed, quantity and operational charges for the emergency water supply project, which remain the same).
CFR can be contacted at email@example.com.
The Cambria Community Services District Board of Directors will hold its monthly meeting at 12:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 28, at the Veterans Memorial Building, 1000 Main St. The draft agenda for that meeting was not available at press deadline Tuesday, Jan. 19.
The special Feb. 12 meeting for the public hearing on water and sewage- treatment rate increases also will be held at the Vets Hall, starting at 9 a.m.
Filing a protest
Protests, which must include specific information according to the state’s Proposition 218, can be submitted at the Cambria Community Services District office (1316 Tamson St., Suite 201); by mail to CCSD, Attn: District Clerk, P.O. Box 65, Cambria CA 93428; or in person at the district’s Jan. 28 regular meeting or the Feb. 12 hearing.