Opinion by Jim Hill and Julie Tacker
As moms and dads are adding the finishing touches to costumes two days before Halloween, on Oct. 29, the Arroyo Grande City Council will hold a Special Meeting at 6:00 p.m. where it plans to unveil a trio of rate and tax increases. If approved, in Jan. 2020, the city plans to raise your water and wastewater rates and initiate a stormwater management tax to residents’ property tax bills.
At last count, the City of Arroyo Grande admits it is experiencing a $3.6 million shortfall for much needed infrastructure repairs and is about $500,000 short in their annual contribution to the Five Cities Fire Authority. Now, it’s time to address water, wastewater and stormwater, where salaries and wages are projected to increase by 3 percent annually and the cost of employee benefits expenses by 8 percent annually.
Planned utility rate increases are significant and complex. Pay close attention as water rates will be increased between 6.8 percent and 9.6 percent, depending if the city chooses to fund its unknown portion of the $28 to $50 million toilet-to-tap wastewater recycling project known as Central Coast Blue. This project includes Pismo and Grover Beach, Oceano, the sanitation district and Arroyo Grande.
The idea is to treat sewage water to a very high standard, strategically inject it into the ground and then pump it out to drink. It is premature to collect from the ratepayers; to date the project has no environmental impact report, no permits and no governance structure has been identified for a formal partnership.
Why collect funds now? What if the project never comes to fruition? What if it becomes a boondoggle, like the Cambria experiment? Government is not known for returning funds, yet government is famous for using funds collected for one purpose to fund another.
If the city chooses to adopt rates including Central Coast Blue, the single-family homes’ average bimonthly bill will go from $119.50 today to $187.84 in 2023-24.
The city is planning for 3.3 percent annual increases to sewer bills to pay for sewer collection system maintenance. It is important to note, that wastewater treatment charges are established by the sanitation district. With its $29 million redundancy project going out to bid in a few weeks, you can almost bet those rates will rise in the near term too.
The city council wants to shift the way it pays for storm water management from its general fund to a $69.00 annual special tax on each home, collected by the county on your bi-annual property tax bill.
This trio of increases will go through the Proposition 218 protest process. This is where you have the right to submit a letter of objection to the city council. It would require 50 percent plus one customers to submit protest letters to defeat the taxes.
Since the protest period will be over the holidays, it’s a tall order for citizens to organize enough muster to successfully stop the increases. The city council knows this, that’s why they do it at special meetings during the holidays. But please don’t let Scrooge stop you from trying.
This last winter the council ignored the city manager’s recommendation to return to a single fire department model, which would save money and give the council laser focused local control over the emergency services of the city. Recently the joint powers agreement with the Five Cities Fire Authority has changed its operational structure increasing costs so much that Arroyo Grande and Oceano are struggling to meet their financial obligations to the agreement.
Grover Beach now enjoys cannabis revenues; their city can afford a great deal more than the others.
This past summer, the city council increased the garbage rates by over 10 percent, and is still mulling over possible solutions to the $2.4 million needed to maintain parks and city buildings and another $1.2 million ($3.6 million combined) needed to keep streets and parking lots properly paved. All this comes, before the city even tries to sell bonds to pay for the $22 million Brisco roundabout interchange; a choice that is $10 million more than the next-less expensive option.
Arroyo Grande residents are encouraged to attend Tuesday’s special city council meeting at 6:00 p.m., but hold on tight to your purse: the city council is coming to Trick or Treat at your house.