Suits over Paso water rates go in different directions

A second citizen lawsuit filed in June against Paso Robles’ water-rate increases has been thrown out, even as another lawsuit against the city that’s been on hold for about two years might finally go forward.

In the June lawsuit, John Borst of Paso Robles again argued that the city’s water rate increases to pay for its portion of the Nacimiento Water Project should have been considered a special tax requiring voter approval, instead of going forward as a fee on a water bill.

The case was essentially the same lawsuit Borst filed in May 2010 — with four other members of a Paso Robles-based citizens group — that San Luis Obispo Superior Court Judge Martin Tangemen ruled against in October.

However, Tangemen also ruled that Paso Robles city leaders could have better explained why rate hikes were needed, and he required the city to redo its public noticing process. City officials did that and finalized the rate hikes this summer.

Borst said in an email that he has filed a second lawsuit with new arguments claiming more than 10 examples of city water rate noncompliance with the provisions of Proposition 218, a 1996 law approved by California voters that allows for public protest of various government levies.

But last Tuesday, San Luis Obispo Superior Court Judge Jac Crawford threw out Borst’s June lawsuit because Tangemen previously ruled that the city’s rate increase was a fee, not a tax.

Paso Robles’ rate increase is still set to take effect in 2012.

Class action

Borst’s other lawsuit from 2009 seeks a class-action refund for the city’s 10,000 water customers on previously established water rate hikes customers already paid.

Crawford is slated to hear arguments on that case Jan. 24.

The 2009 lawsuit alleges Paso Robles leaders broke state law when they raised water and sewer rates in 2002 and 2004.

Borst and petitioners William Taylor, Brooke Mayo, Teresa St. Clair and Thomas Rusch seek to stop Paso Robles from collecting those fees and for the city to refund a collective $8 million to ratepayers.

San Luis Obispo Superior Court Judge Roger Picquet, now retired, put the case on hold in September 2009 to see how the California Supreme Court would handle a similar class-action decision in a Los Angeles case about telephone charges.

The judge in that case, Ardon v. City of Los Angeles, ruled this summer in favor of allowing one person to file a class action against a public entity in some instances.

That means that Crawford would now take the state’s ruling into consideration for Borst’s class-action request, in addition to determining whether the previous water rates were unlawful.