BY DONNA WESTFALL – October 2, 2012
Monday night, October 1, 2012. It was another short meeting. The nights agenda included a discussion on contracting with Tom Romesberg to perform the duties of Utilities Manager. The reason for taking this step is because over the last three years the City has attempted to secure a permanent Wastewater Treatement Plant (WWTP) Supervisor. The city has been unsuccessful in getting the right person for this vital position. The right person is 1.) someone with experience, 2.) the correct certifications/licensing, and 3.) will stay long term. The council voted 5-0 to press forward with this contract.
The upgrade to our WWTP at an exorbitant price tag of $43.8 million is state-of-the-art. It caused our sewer rates to nearly double, creating hardships among the majority of our population and businesses.
After the Prop 218 protest vote failed (some say due to miscounting the vote by former city clerk, Dianne Nickerson), my husband and I started an initiative to repeal the sewer rate increase. We were successful in gathering sufficient valid signatures to get the initiative to the 2010 ballot. However, the City of Crescent City sued us to keep it off the ballot.
During the court hearing the summer of 2010, in front of Judge Morrison (who is no longer allowed to Judge in our County as of 2012), Attorney Tim Bittle, from the Howard Jarvis Taxpayer’s Association, who represented us…. the Westfall’s, was expert at pointing out other ways for the city to afford the WWTP without increasing sewer rates. One of those ways was to contract with a private company that runs and manages WWTP’s. Another way was to restructure pensions for new hirees. Actually, citizens met several times in 2007 -2008 with staff, council members and then acting city attorney, Bob Black pointing out a dozen ways to not increase the sewer rates. But as is common in this area, the members of the public were met with stubborn resistance.
City Manager, Gene Palazzo, by Eric Wier, current Utilities Director, wrote that the City Council has expressed the intent to analyze the feasibility of hiring a private company to manage, operate and maintain the city’s WWTP. Over the next few months, City staff will be starting this evaluation. Once concluded, staff will be making a recommendation to the Council.
Halleujah! It’s about time.
However, our Mayor Kathryn Murray chimed in that she wasn’t in favor of having a private company to do that since they are in business to make a profit. Since when is making a profit a dirty word? The point being, years ago I told the Crescent City, city council after they censured me for sticking my nose into things that looked and smelled suspiciously of corruption and kickbacks at the WWTP, that I spoke with the Mayor of Santa Paula who was very pleased with their private/public arrangement. A private company ran their WWTP plant very well, and the city took care of the billing. While on the witness stand during the summer of 2010, I repeated the same thing.
Most recently, I spoke with David Winsloff, President of Integrated Engineers, Inc. out of Oakhurst, Calif. They are in the business of running WWTP’s. Our city manager met and spoke with another firm while at the League of California Cities meeting last month. There are plenty of good companies to contact, speak with, and get bids from. Deciding to eliminate this as an option because a company would make a profit is ridiculous. If a private company can run it better, more efficiently and keep costs down, then we would do well to explore this option very seriously.
You won’t find my comments about the Mayor of Santa Paula on the video of Monday night’s council meeting as our Mayor Kathryn Murray saw fit to cut me off mid-sentence.
It is very interesting to think about ad hoc committees. Sometimes, I think they are created to postpone making a decision. In other words to buy time as in the case of increasing the sewer hook-up fees. That ad hoc committee took an entire year. When the committes recommendation was to double the fee, then Mayor Irene Tynes wouldn’t go for it and the new fee was set at under $10,000. We mustn’t forget that the developers are supposed to pay for expansion, while ratepayers are only supposed to pay for operations and maintenance of the WWTP. One of the problems being that expansion was stated to be at about 11+%. This figure has always been looked at as extremely low and actually fictitious by members of the public.
On a separate subject, an Ad Hoc committee was set up a few years ago to look into the Solid Waste Authority. As a result, the Solid Waste Authority Board was put on hiatus while a ten member Super committee was formed comprised of the five city council members and the five county supervisors. Former Board members, Kelly Schellong, Kathryn Murray, Leslie McNamer, Martha McClure and public member Sarah Samples ceased making their $375/month stipend saving $22,500/year. I don’t know for sure why the Board of Supervisors was successful in getting an Ad Hoc committee formed while our city council would not form one to investigate irregularities on the WWTP during construction. Each person of the public requesting such a committee or an investigation was routinely met with sneers and rolling eyeballs. The result being that many members of the public will no longer attend city council meetings because of the unprofessional behavior of our council members. Another end result was the city lost out on $165,000 in penalties due to Colburn Electric being caught falsifying payroll and not paying overtime.
For the next 29 years, Crescent City will be paying out $2 million/year to pay off our WWTP. We owe it to everybody to be very diligent about exploring any way possible to make the operations and maintenance of our plant as streamlined and cost effective as possible.
Question to contemplate? The city of Willits is building a new WWTP at $26 million for 5,000 hook-ups. We spent $43.8 million for under 5,000 hook-ups. Why is that?