Tired of ‘kicking the can’ down the road, Escalon City Councilman Danny Fox made the motion to accept new proposed water rates for Escalon at Monday night’s council meeting.
Councilman Robert Swift moved to amend the original resolution and it was seconded but failed after lengthy discussion – with the council then voting 3-2 in favor of Fox’s original motion.
At issue is a multi-year plan to steadily increase water use and service fee rates, as the city looks to update and expand the system, providing for a safe, reliable drinking water supply for residents.
Fox, Mayor Gary Haskin and Mayor Pro Tem Jeff Laugero voted in favor of the increase; councilmen Robert Swift and Ed Alves voted no.
A public hearing on the proposed rates brought out close to nearly two dozen people for the Monday night session and many residents had also submitted protests in writing, against the proposed rate increases.
While all council members said they don’t necessarily want a rate increase either – since they all live here and pay the same fees – Fox said it was something that had to be done.
He noted that in past years, when councils should have been making adjustments, they utilized other available funds to keep the rates low. But those sources have since dried up or are no longer available, and the city needs to make the water system a self-supporting proposition.
Swift said he wanted to amend the resolution to hopefully lessen the impact – such as delaying the hiring of an additional staff person for that department until the third year of the new rate structure. He also wanted to keep money the city receives annually from Tracy - $105,000 for surface water – to use to keep the rates lower.
And even though it was a split vote of the council to enact the new rates, Laugero pointed out the fact that the rates set forth are the highest the city can charge – they can be lowered and he asked staff to bring some options for ways to lower the fees back to the council at its next meeting for consideration.
City Manager Tammy Alcantor said the number of protests received regarding the rates were below the limit that would have barred the council from enacting them. A little more than 250 were received, far short of the 1200-plus that were required.
Local businessman Ken Goff turned in a petition at the Monday night meeting, noting he had collected a couple hundred signatures in a ‘grassroots’ movement recently by just spending a few hours outside a grocery store. He said he would have gotten more had he known about the issue sooner, but said he had only recently learned of the proposed rate hikes.
City officials noted that the information regarding the rate hike proposal was included in water bills, on the police department Facebook page and noticed officially in The Escalon Times, the city’s newspaper of record, along with news articles that were included in the paper.
A handful of residents came to the podium to speak, citing concerns about the cost and asking for the council to tread lightly. It is a position council members were sympathetic to, but noted that since the rates haven’t been raised since 1996, it was well past time to start making the adjustments.
“The problem is coming home to roost,” Mayor Haskin said of waiting too long to address the water system issues. “We’ve just got to bite the bullet.”
The proposed new rates include a fixed bi-monthly charge and a variable use charge, based on water consumption. A typical single family home will see its bill increase from the $45.50 charged bi-monthly in 2014 to $61.11 this year under the proposed new water rates.
Beyond that, the rates will go up each year but council members said the rates really are still to be determined, based on what options they will have to consider. The council will also have to go through the process again in another five years.
Alves said though he voted ‘no’ on the original motion, he recognizes the need for the increase but said he wants time for the council to review all possibilities. Approving the motion on Monday night will mean an increase in the water rates as of May 1 this year.
Mayor Haskin said he wanted to have the plan in place at the highest rate structure so it is available if the city needs it to not be faced with shortfalls in the system. The rates can be lowered by the council, but cannot go higher than those adopted in the resolution.
“I think the fear is, that whenever government says ‘this is the maximum we can charge’ that’s what they charge,” Laugero admitted, to a burst of applause from the audience. “Being ratepayers ourselves, we’re going to try and scrub this down.”
Alves, along with all the council members, said they were appreciative of residents turning out to voice their opinion and share ideas with the council.
“There’s tough decisions on both sides,” he admitted.
Swift added that he would like to see that many residents at every council meeting.
“This is a hot button issue, that’s why you’re here,” he said, urging that they should “always stay involved” with city issues.
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