Following last Tuesday’s public hearing on probable water and sewer rate hikes where the City Council blocked residents from submitting any more protest letters, some said they didn’t like the increases, but accepted the city manager’s explanation for them and asked to rescind their letters.
They got at least three calls the next morning from residents who were at Tuesday's meeting and heard City Manager Dylan Feik’s presentation on why the rates need to be increased, who asked that their letters of protest not be counted.
The count, with or without those who changed their mind, was moot because the city received less than two-thirds of what would have been required to prevent the city from raising rates.
While nobody is happy about raising the rates, Feik said in his presentation that if the rates aren’t increased, it keeps the city handcuffed financially.
“When I go to lenders and say I want to refinance our debt, they tell me ‘you are not even meeting your obligations now,’” Feik said.
The existing debt on the utility funds requires a debt payment that should be set aside every year, but the city hasn’t had enough money to satisfy that requirement for years, he said. He has tried “no less than five times” to refinance and has been rejected being told “you need to raise your rates first,” he said.
Currently Calistogans pay less for water than neighboring cities St. Helena and Yountville. In Calistoga the single family residential monthly current average fixed rate for water is $23.05 and $32.50 for variable rates, compared with Yountville’s $45.99 for fixed and $14.15 for variable, and St. Helena’s rates of $51.71 and $31.85 respectively.
Average monthly wastewater rates in Calistoga for single family residences are $65.25 fixed with no variable rates, compared to $56.10, fixed, in St. Helena plus $24.60 in variable rates for a total of $80.70, and the City of Sonoma pays $56.42 fixed and $20.53 variable for a total of $76.95. Yountville has only a fixed rate, as does Calistoga, and is lower at $44.82.
Feik said if Calistoga does increase the rates it will still be lower than St. Helena, but will be higher than Yountville, but only until the Town of Yountville raises its own rates, which it is in the process of doing and will put it back higher than Calistoga.
The cost to Calistoga of water and other services is going up and some speakers at last Tuesday’s City Council meeting suggested the city find the money to offset those costs somewhere other than residents’ pocketbooks.
But Feik said that for every dollar the city might take from another bucket to pay for the utilities means that a dollar is lost to pay for other things such as roads, police, and fire services and equipment.
“It’s always easy to find another way to pay for it, but it can’t all be about water and wastewater,” Feik said. “I’ve got all these other things which I have to think about.”
“Our fire department has two 20-year-old fire apparatus” that the city is preparing to replace. The police department and recreation department have maintenance requirements, too, he said.
The council has the option to not pass on rate hikes to utility customers, Feik said, it’s been done in the past, but he offered a reminder of the city’s dire financial status in 2011 when it had about $16,000 in the General Fund account.
“It was just a short time ago that we were in a very, very precarious situation,” Feik said.
The city is looking at options on how to help low-income ratepayers, some of whom may not know of existing programs such as the 20 percent discount available to those who are already enrolled in PG&E’s CARE discount program. Feik also said last year they changed the policy on penalty forgiveness, which was set at once-per-lifetime. The city also has payment plan options for those who are struggling, and currently spends between $10,000 and $15,000 in assistance.
“If the council wants to double that, it’s still not a huge amount, and maybe it comes from the General Fund. We just have to make sure the most vulnerable people have some help,” he said.