Battle over Nacimiento water project fees nears the ballot box in Paso Robles

A battle over Paso Robles water rates will come to a head with an election Tuesday.

Asking voters to decide on a water rate scale to pay for the city’s share of the Nacimiento Water Project, Measure A-09 made it into local ballots at the prompting of Concerned Citizens for Paso Robles.

The group gathered enough signatures from registered voters stating that they want the city to rescind a water rate increase that the City Council had adopted in the spring. The council had to call for an election, or overturn the proposed rate increase.

Its main sticking point is that the city should refer to the rate increases as a special tax, group leader John Borst said, not as a charge on a water bill.

That’s because his group argues that any levy that pays for capital costs for the Nacimiento pipeline and related infrastructure, as a special tax, require voter approval.

A special tax would require two-thirds voter approval while a fee or a general tax requires 50 percent plus one to pass.

Under state law, a levy is defined as a special tax if its revenue goes to specific purposes. And a charge is legally considered a fee if it pays for a service or benefit.

The city argues that the higher rates are a fee because they pay for the benefit of the added water supply.

The issue is now up for an election because the council thought it would be the quickest way to set a water rate in place to pay for a treatment plant to make the lake water drinkable.

Concerned Citizens members have said they’d protest any new rate proposals all over again, thus delaying the treatment plant further.

In its campaign urging voters to say no to the rate increases, Concerned Citizens has placed fliers on local doorsteps supporting its view. The fliers contain several statements that city officials say are misleading.

With about 10 active members, Concerned Citizens has business people, a professor, retirees, a farmer and a peace officer, among others, Borst said. The group has a Web site — www.paso218.org — showing a group photo and a short mission statement.

In an e-mail interview with The Tribune, Borst said that Concerned Citizens officially formed in 2007. “The major (reason) is wanting to be part of an organized group that has had an impact on the City Council for the benefit of residents in our community,” he wrote.

The group also opposed earlier rate increase proposals, but never succeeded in the protest ballot. It’s good to challenge government, said Kathy Barnett of Paso Robles, who is a frequent public speaker at council meetings.

“I take a different attitude toward the water rates than they do, but there are two sides to every issue and disagreeing is OK,” she said. “I really don’t want them to go away. A broader range of participation is what causes change in government.”

Still, because Barnett sees Concerned Citizens members discuss only water issues, she said that makes her wonder about the group’s purpose.

Others have said they, too, question the group’s motives, especially when they present their arguments. For instance, at council meetings, some Concerned Citizens members have expressed worries that some locals on fixed incomes won’t be able to afford the higher rates, without bringing up the special-tax argument.

After members of the group appeared on KPRL 1230 AM radio’s “Sound Off” program on Tuesday, host Dick Mason said they frustrated him as well as listeners who called in to his show, because “they begin answering each question by going off on a tangent, and rarely return to the question at hand.”

And, at a council meeting earlier this year, one member of the public said calls to the group went unreturned. Most recently, the Concerned Citizens election flier has circulated around town.

The Tribune has analyzed statements on that flier against the facts.

Statement: The city wants to double the water rate.

Fact: The rate up for a vote won’t double what users have to pay, and the increases are staggered over time. Today, the average family’s monthly water bill — based on 19 units — averages $43.08 per month, which includes an $18 fixed rate per bill.

With the new method, that same bill would increase to $49.95 in 2010 and to $63.65 in 2013 because it’s based on how much water each household uses. If customers use less water, then their bills will be lower.

Statement: Nacimiento water is not needed by current residents.

Fact: Unlike the city’s current water sources, Paso Robles will have first dibs at its 4,000 acre-feet of Nacimiento water.

As it is now, groundwater levels continue to dip, but the city isn’t the only one pumping out that water. Private property owners in surrounding areas use it, too.

Agriculture users have priority over the city, so Paso Robles is allowed only the surplus water others don’t use.

Likewise, river underflow is limited via a state-issued permit. Nacimiento water can relieve pumping stresses in the groundwater basin.

Without it, water shortages will recur annually because demand will exceed supply in the summer when people use more water outdoors. Also, blending the less-salty Nacimiento water with city wastewater will stop the $84,000 to $89,000 in violations Paso Robles is currently paying to the state because of customers’ water softeners.

Statement: New development needing Nacimiento water should pay the entire cost.

Fact: Current residents and new development are splitting the cost of the project. The city’s General Plan caps growth at 44,000 residents by 2025 — whether that is current families expanding or new people moving and building there.

New development will pay for 50 percent of the new water through hook-up fees of up to $23,500 per water meter in addition to paying the new rate like everyone else.

Statement: Government may not impose user fees to finance the future expansion of the water system.

Fact: Concerned Citizens said the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association supports the position that the proposed rates should be considered a special tax, but the association later told the city it only prefers such costs be paid by special assessments or special taxes. It agrees the law does not require those methods.