“It’s déjà vu all over again.” -- Yogi Berra
Last week, the Oxnard City Council started the process to raise our wastewater rates again. That process, which involves mailing out notices to residents and a 45-day protest period, will culminate in a public hearing on May 16.
If that seems familiar to you, you’re right. Fourteen months ago, we organized hundreds of people to show up at a city council meeting to protest proposed utility rate increases – water, sewer and garbage – that would amount to an average increase of $750 per family per year. We were partially successful. The City Council ultimately deferred the decision on water and garbage, and voted to raise only sewer bills to the tune of $326 per year.
We fought that 87% sewer increase at the ballot box, and 72% of Oxnard voters adopted Measure M to reject that excessive rate increase and allow the city to try again to be reasonable. The city did go back to the drawing board…but what they came up with is not substantially better than the previous plan.
If approved at the May 16 meeting, the City Council’s new proposal will raise a typical household’s sewer bill from last year’s $30.93 to $54.15 per month – a 74% increase. That’s an extra $278.64 per year out of your pocket. Of course, if your household is larger than typical, your bills will grow even more.
And that’s just your sewer bill. The city council also plans to raise your water bill later this year…and we hear that will be a very large increase as well.
The city council had created a Utility Ratepayers Advisory Panel (URAP) to create an illusion of public participation in the rate-setting process and to give some political cover to the council. Even so, the plan approved by the council wasn’t exactly the one recommended by the URAP, though the 74% impact on your wallet is the same. And the council completely ignored the other two recommendations of the URAP.
It was obvious to even casual observers of the URAP meetings that city staff intended to tightly control the process, which results in control of the outcome. Things got messy when URAP members brought up subjects that city staff didn’t want to talk about. At the end of the process, the URAP did at least manage to adopt two policy recommendations over the objections of city staff:
- With a 6-0 vote, the URAP recommended mandating an annual status report on each of the projects listed in the most recent Cost of Service Study. In the past, city staff would recommend millions of dollars be spent on capital improvements – raising your rates to pay for them – and then not do them. Of course, those same unfinished projects are used to justify the next set of rate increases. If implemented, this recommendation would require city staff to explain why they didn’t complete promised projects.
- With a 4-3 vote the URAP recommended that the City of Oxnard no longer charge its utilities an infrastructure use fee. See our blog article for more details, but this is essentially a SCAM that robs more than $7 million per year from the city’s three utilities and transfers the loot into the general fund. This has been going on for decades and is a big reason why tens of millions of dollars have been unavailable for needed repairs … and this practice leads to even higher utility rates.
We insisted on recorded votes by the URAP on these two recommendations, so city staff had little choice but to present them to the city council. Sadly, however, due to staff’s opposition, they advocated that the council disregard those recommendations and only vote to adopt their rate increase.
By all appearances, city staff also closely manages the city council, so few seemed surprised when the council felt no obligation to bring the URAP’s policy recommendations to a vote.
That tells you that the URAP was just a ruse, not a group intended to think independently and without the seal of approval of city staff.
Mark your calendars for May 16 ... because on that evening, the City Council will once again vote to raise rates.
And while this may feel like déjà vu all over again, I would not be surprised if we one day look back on this coming May 16 as a watershed moment in Oxnard history.