A handful of people who spoke at Tuesday’s city council meeting stirred up old debates and called into question the method of notification to residents when notices of poor water quality and probable water and sewer hikes were sent out.
Speakers, some who said they live in one of the mobile home parks in town, said they were not notified directly of the proposed water and sewer rate hikes or of a water contamination notice sent in November.
“I did not receive a notice about the poor quality of our Calistoga water. I did not receive the notice that was sent to all water billed customers,” said Thomas Hughes. “I live in Rancho de Calistoga with a master meter system and I do not receive a direct mailing on water issues from the city. Only the owners of that property receive notices. Our owners have not and do not inform the citizens of Calistoga about issues of this nature.”
City Manager Dylan Feik said that this was the first he was hearing that mobile home park residents were not being notified.
“It is the responsibility of the (mobile home) park owner to inform their tenants,” Mayor Chris Canning said.
According to a state law, Prop. 218, ratepayers are determined by the meters, and the mobile home parks have one meter each so it is the park owners who receive the notices and then are responsible for passing on that information to their residents. Canning said that the city will look into “what leverage” the city has over those owners “to ensure that they” are passing on the notices.
Due to rising operating costs, capital projects and regulations, a rate study analysis identified that the current rate structure is insufficient to fund the city’s responsibilities that include replacing aging infrastructure, addressing mandated improvements driven by a 2016 Cease and Desist order, and meeting debt service obligations.
A notice sent to ratepayers was sent recently informing them of the rate hike, but Councilmember Gary Kraus said the wording of the notice was disappointing.
“I received the same notice that everybody else did that’s a ratepayer in the city and it really could have been better. I realize that it met all the requirements of Prop. 218, but I think that it missed the mark on justification and explaining exactly what the fee was going to be in, let’s call it, plain English,” Kraus said.
A couple of the speakers referenced the Silver Rose and Calistoga Hills developments, which they said were offered up by the city as a panacea for the city’s water woes, but Canning disputed that saying that all the facts and figures of where monies collected from the developments — which were approved by voters in two separate measures in 2012 – are available and will be presented at a public hearing in January. Impact fees collected from the developments have gone toward repairing and improving infrastructure.
“Our statements have always been” that once the developments are fully built and “up and running, paying water and sewer rates as customers” that’s “when rates would stabilize,” and “even if (the developments) never existed we have a system that has 80-year-old pipes” and other obligations “that we are addressing,” Canning said.
The speakers’ comments were “well taken,” Kraus said, and explained “There’s probably seven or eight factors that went into helping to determine what those rates should be to have a fully funded system. I think quite clearly we need to do a much better job in communicating this to our constituents so that they can make their viewpoint known.
“You can look the spreadsheets, and we have spreadsheets up the kazoo, about how the water rates work, however it needs to be boiled down into plain English so that people can see exactly where the money came from up to this point, where that money went to, what money is needed for things like replacing pipes that are 80 years old, where the decision to leave the tiered structure came from, it’s a court decision, but I think that the court decision should be cited in our notice,” Kraus said.
A public hearing on the rate hikes will be held during the council’s regularly scheduled Jan. 2 council meeting, and Canning and Feik indicated that should the public be interested in learning more a community forum will be held so that a less formal discussion that what takes place at council meetings can happen so that people feel more comfortable with the fees and why they need to be raised.
According to the Proposition 218 process, if more than 50 percent of affected parcels submit written protests, the council cannot go forward with the increases, which brings into question the rate paying system with master meters such as in the mobile home parks.
There are some 198 homes in Calistoga Springs where Geri Hanson said she lives and believes “many are double occupancy.”
“We’re all water users, we all pay for water, and if our park only gets one vote per park, and I don’t necessarily mean vote, as I understand it we can submit letters and if so many letters are received it will have an impact on the decision or what’s going to happen with the water rates,” Hanson said. “I think that we’re not being represented properly as residents, as water-fee paying residents. It just does not feel constitutional, and I mean that in the broadest sense, it’s a lack of representation so I’d really like to see that addressed in a different.”
Feik said the rate hike public meetings would have been held sooner than Jan. 2, but the process was delayed by October’s fires.
The notification of the poor water quality was brought into question with speakers asking why results of a test conducted in August wasn’t sent out earlier. Feik explained that tests are done regularly and there is no expectation to receive one-day turnaround on results.
“Certainly it’s not our intention to be withholding any information or to not share anything that we know. Once we know something, and it’s been documented, verified – we send notices immediately,” he said.
Yvonne Henry said her husband Chick Harrity will not drink Calistoga tap water.
“He says it stinks,” Henry said. “There’s nothing in this report that says these recommendations would address the water, I mean it really is putrid on weekends. It’s not a good PR element for a tourist town.”