Morro Bay is facing political backlash and threats of legal action after its City Council increased water and sewer rates in September by $41 per month to provide needed funding for its planned new sewage treatment facility.
Aaron Ochs, of the grassroots Save Morro Bay group, told the Tribune in a Facebook message that his organization hired a law firm to publicly review about 1,000 written rate protest letters submitted by the group Citizens for Affordable Living to the City Council on Sept. 11.
The City Council declined to count the protest letters because they were admittedly collected before the city provided public notice of the specific rate increase and opened its rate protest period.
“Save Morro Bay publicly requested to inspect the ballots not counted and verified by the city,” Ochs told The Tribune. “We hired an attorney to inspect the ballots on Monday at City Hall. We believe the protests are valid under state law.”
Ochs added, “We are evaluating legal options, but our primary objective is to strongly urge the city to follow the law and count the (1,000) protests.”
But City Manager Scott Collins told The Tribune in phone interview that the 1,000 protest letters have no legal validity because the City Council required residents to provide a date on their ballots, and those were gathered before the $41 rate increase was announced.
“Our city attorneys feel very strongly and confidently (the council’s decision) would be upheld in court,” Collins said.
The city is planning to build a $126 million sewage treatment and water reclamation facility near South Bay Boulevard and Highway 1.
The new rates will help pay for the new infrastructure, raising the total average household monthly sewer and water rate to $191 on average (some residents will pay more and some less).
State Proposition 218 allows voters to consider a new tax and vote to reject it during a 45-day protest window with a majority opposition.
Morro Bay received 2,158 written protests (aside from the roughly 1,000 submitted by Citizens for Affordable Living) by the Sept. 11 deadline — short of the 2,794 needed for a majority plus one, according to a Sept. 12 Tribune article.
Mayor Irons fires back
Mayor Jamie Irons told The Tribune that he believes Morro Bay residents were falsely informed by Citizens for Affordable Living on the rate increase amounts in their door-to-door campaigns.
Irons said he received a call from a Morro Bay resident in the buildup to the council’s Proposition 218 notice, who was told by an activist that her water and sewer rates would be raised to $600 to $800 per month, and that city property values would plunge by half the current value without a successful rate protest.
The Cloisters neighborhood resident believed “fear tactics” were being used to spread misinformation about the costs to ratepayers and collect protest votes, Irons said.
Before the rate notice, the council passed a resolution, based on research by City Attorney Joseph Pannone, requiring residents to include specific information in their protests, such as a date and a parcel number to validate their vote, Irons said.
Irons said that the city clerk had people come in to rescind their protest votes once they found out the actual rate increase amount, which totals roughly $191 per month.
“People were getting false information, and I have a problem with that,” Irons said. “That’s why we and other cities have adopted resolutions defining the Prop. 218 process.”
Council opponents react
Cynthia Hawley — a lawyer who submitted the 1,000 protest ballots on behalf of Citizens for Affordable Living — said the city’s actions are unconstitutional.
“The Constitution doesn’t preclude votes that don’t have dates,” Hawley said. “People have the right to decide their criteria for protesting. They have a right to protest for whatever reason they want to.”
Hawley said she’s not pursuing legal action, butshe is urging the city to reconsider its decision.
Ochs contended “ratepayers can oppose any sort of rate increase for any reason,” adding “it can be a vote of no confidence for the project” regardless of the rate calculations.
But Irons countered the reason for Proposition 218 is to provide accurate and specific information about new charges.
“The purpose of the Prop. 218 vote is to define a reason for a new tax, ” Irons said. “Voters then have the opportunity to vote on whether they want that new tax or not.”
An election issue
The site of the planned sewage treatment plant has been an election issue that has divided City Council candidates. Some believe a site closer to the current oceanside facility will save costs, while others say that would risk environmental impacts and rejection by the Coastal Commission.
The current, deteriorating facility is located a block from the ocean at 160 Atascadero Road.
At its last meeting, the council awarded Filanc, Black & Veatch of San Diego a $67.2 million contract to design and construct the new facility near South Bay Boulevard.
Mayor and council candidates competing in the Nov. 6 election are split on the current sewage treatment location.
Candidates John Headding (mayor), Dawn Addis, Jan Goldman and Jesse Barron support the facility in its planned location, while candidates John Weiss (mayor), Betty Winholtz and Jeff Heller oppose the council’s current direction and would likely work to undo it.