Sat. Jun 22nd, 2024

Opinion and Commentary Originally Published By Donna Westfall – February 29, 2016.  Updated December 27, 2023 due to expected sewer rate increase in 2024.

frog strangling craneHow many people relish the thought of existing on only four hours of sleep a night for 45 days for no pay just to try beating another sewer rate increase?

Coordinating a campaign 45 days long consists of hiring people, teaching them what to say and what not to say.  In other words, how to qualify an owner or sewer rate payer. Keeping spreadsheets to track who has signed and who still needs to sign. Driving them around, placing tables and chairs and people around town and to do it consistently day after day for 45 days.  And, it’s dismaying that each time a Prop 218 protest takes place, the City decides to disqualify many of the ratepayers, which is clearly against the law, nevertheless they do it because they are not in their system even though they have a receipt proving they pay the bill.

2,023 protests were entered.  However, there were over 200 duplications.

Duplications are a constant source of problems.  Oftentimes, both husband and wife want to sign even after being told only one protest will be counted. Sometimes people sign at WalMart,  Safeway or the Post Office and their roommate or spouse also signs when a signature gatherer knocks on their door. More frequently, a tenant will sign first and then the owner will sign later as witnessed in several multiple property owners that submitted their letters of protest directly to the City without the protest group having any knowledge.  Only one protest counted per parcel, so that’s a huge source of duplications.  We always attempt to get the multiple property owners signed up in the beginning of the campaign because it short cuts the process tremendously.  Needless to say, although the majority are on board with stopping another rate increase several locals just won’t bother, along with several others that live outside the area.

There were over 100 protests submitted by people who were not on sewer including some that live out of the county. Part of the problem in getting those signatures is not have the signature gatherers asking qualifying questions like, “Are you on city sewer?” The other part is multiple property owners that list all their properties including undeveloped lots and those that are on septic.

Owners and ratepayers against another sewer rate increase are always disappointed to hear that we lost AGAIN.

It’s not that there aren’t enough people against the increase.  That’s not the problem.

The problem is having enough people getting the right signature in a timely.  When someone goes out mid-morning, knocking on doors, oftentimes people are not home.   That means a return trip.  Calls made, messages left and then little follow up. Door hangers were left so that people could call to get their protest signed; or sign their sewer bill and submit it directly to the city.

Fortunately or unfortunately a few people did just that.  They took in their sewer bill to the City, wrote “I protest sewer rate increase”: and then forgot to add their signature.  That means their protest was disqualified. Another good reason to run the protests through one group, so that those types of obvious errors would be caught.

It would be nice if everyone that objected to another rate increase would just do their part, but instead many would rather complain than lift a finger. Many of those on sewer only, meaning they do not have city water, were shocked to discover that their bills would go up over $7/month and also be subject to the 20% rate increase.

In terms of a business venture, the caliber of people hired on to get signatures was sorely lacking.  They were, as a group, inconsistent, unreliable and undependable.  Some disappeared after a few days. Many didn’t seem to know what a good work ethic means.  Maybe they had never been trained. A couple decided that the city was right in lowering the rates for 50% of the people and stopped collecting signatures.  Sadly, they didn’t do enough research to consider what would happen to the other 50% and the affected businesses. The majority of the restaurants signed to protest.

On the other hand, many workers were dedicated enough to stand in the rain in front of the water department, or walking neighborhoods. Less than a handful lasted and persisted from start to finish.

Thanks go to the Crescent City-Del Norte County Taxpayers Association board members for collecting 400 signatures.  The paid signature gatherers collected over 1400 protest signatures and were paid $2 per signature. By the last week, after illnesses, hospital and health visits, lice problems, kid problems and marital problems; everything was humming, but it was too little, too late.

Thanks also go to the business people who contributed reams of paper and made hundreds of copies.  Many of the blank protest forms were ruined in the rain despite best attempts to protect them.  Thanks go to the computer people who spent countless hours inputting data on excel spreadsheets. Thanks go to the people that picked up, dropped off people, tables and chairs, then picked them all up again day after day, after day.

The next step is to see whether or not the Crescent City, City Council will adopt the new 20% sewer rate increase at their March 7th council meeting.

In anticipation that they will adopt the higher rates, a referendum is being prepared to take the issue to the ballot box. It’s pretty useless to think that the present City Council will order an investigation into any allegations of wrongdoing, allegations of graft, fraud and corruption since they haven’t for the previous eight years.  If they did, there’s a good chance that those who deliberately created the huge $43.8 million debt would be taken to task. Imagine if indicted, convicted and ordered to pay restitution or suffer asset forfeiture we, the public, could actually witness a reduction of the loan amount? It won’t be easy since the city has already destroyed so many documents and records including video’s of council meetings from 2007 to 2010.  Keep in mind that an un-elected Water Board approved a $43.8 million loan based on our small customer base.  They should be held culpable for their poor decision making skills as well.

The referendum process has 30 days in which to collect 10% of the registered city voters or 182 valid signatures to get the referendum on the November 2016 ballot. Several people have already stepped up and volunteered to collect those signatures. Sufficient signatures are predicted to be turned in before April 6th.

Remember, only CITY registered voters can sign the referendum in contrast to any owner or ratepayer signing for the Prop 218 protest. This is a big distinction.  The 60% of sewer users that live in the County are once again out of luck. Threats of a class action lawsuit by county customers have peppered Facebook.  Suggestions of creating a JPA (Joint Powers Authority) or a Sewer District giving some control to the County may get some traction if enough people start complaining to their elected representatives.

NOTE BY EDITOR:  According to a 2020 California Supreme Court ruling in Wilde v The City of Dunsmuir, sewer and water utility rate increases done by ordinance ARE NOT SUBJECT TO REFERENDUM.  The only opportunity property owners/tenants who pay the sewer bills have is with the Proposition 218 protest method. 

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