The Napa City Council on Tuesday cleared the way for a series of rate increases for local water customers, though not without a final volley of complaints the hikes would hit the most vulnerable residents hardest.
More than a dozen residents spoke out at City Hall against the new pricing structure, which will include increases to monthly water bills through 2022 and impose a baseline charge on all homes and businesses regardless of consumption level.
But a state-required mail-in ballot to block the hikes produced 2,178 letters of protest by Tuesday night – well short of a majority of the 30,994 notices mailed to customers – allowing the council to approve the higher rates, which it did unanimously.
Before the new water rates became official, some Napans urged city leaders to avoid overburdening residents for the upkeep of public services.
“The decision you people are going to make is going to affect every single living person in this area, from little infants to adults,” said Colleen Moore, a 70-year-old Napa resident. “Because there’s one thing we have to have – the most important we have to have — is water. … This is a big increase on a monthly basis, and for the working class and older people, it’s going to be a big jump.”
Council members expressed their sympathies for those who soon will face higher bills, but warned that not bulking up the water system’s finances now would lead to more deterioration and higher bills for a network that requires investment no matter the level of use.
“It’s getting more expensive to live in these wonderful areas we live in, but I don’t know that we have a choice,” said Scott Sedgley. “Water has been a great bargain, and for how much we need it, it’s still a good bargain. But it is hard. It is hard when every bill goes up – sewer, sanitation, water. But we have an obligation to maintain our water system and keep it fiscally solvent.”
Directors of the city Water Division have called the new pricing structure a necessity to meet upkeep expenses that have remained constant, even as drought and California’s resulting conservation mandates have held water sales and revenue down.
The department has said the higher rates will allow it to double its yearly capital investment to $6 million to support a network of two watersheds, three treatment plants and 14 storage tanks and 350 miles of pipes – including about 20 miles of pipeline in service for nearly a century.
Napa reported a falloff in water sales revenue from $27 million in the 2013-14 fiscal year to $22.2 million by 2016-17, $6.7 million less than the city had previously forecast. The decline played out during California’s most severe drought since the early 1990s, which led the state to require cities to cut their water use by 25 percent starting in 2015.
Plans for the Napa water system also include adding pipes beneath Highway 29 and along Third Street, as well as treatment-plant upgrades to lower the level of trihalomethanes, a chlorination by-product that scientific studies indicate may increase cancer and other health risks in extremely high concentrations.
Under the water rate package, a household with a monthly water consumption of 5,000 gallons can expect its monthly bill to go from the current $28 to $35 next year, and on to $47 in 2022, the city stated in its mailing. Bills for low-use customers consuming only 2,000 gallons a month would double from $11 to $22 in 2018 and eventually reach $33 in five years.
Set to take effect Dec. 1 and start appearing on customer bills in February, the new pricing plan sets a base charge for all water customers, which starts at $28.59 every two months for addresses connected to a ¾-inch pipe and goes up for larger water lines. That baseline would go up each October for four years – to $33.02 in 2018, $38.16 in 2019, $42.95 in 2020 and $48.58 in 2021.
Under the current system, Napa imposes a fixed charge only on single-family homes, starting at $16.72 bimonthly.
The new package also charges customers for every 1,000 gallons of water consumed, instead of imposing such pricing only on those using at least 4,000 gallons a month.
Quantity charges will start at $4.07 per 1,000 gallons for residential customers, rising each October to $4.23, $4.34, $4.46 and $4.57 over the next four years. Multifamily and commercial buildings would pay higher rates, as would irrigation-based businesses.
To soften the blow for lower-income Napans, the water rate package increases a city subsidy from $4.75 to $25 per month for families enrolled in PG&E’s power subsidy program.
In September, Napa mailed notices of the planned water rate hikes to its customers 45 days ahead of Tuesday’s council vote as dictated by Proposition 218, the 1996 state law that governs tax and rate increases. Ratepayers can block a local government from considering the hike if a majority declare their opposition by mailing back their notices, but email, fax or verbal statements do not count toward the vote total.
Jack Gray of the Napa County Taxpayers Association conceded that getting the thousands of protest letters necessary to choke off the water-rate increase was unrealistic given low election turnout rates in general – “I can’t get to 50 percent plus one between myself, my wife and our two dogs,” he cracked – but told council members the number of opposition votes should serve as a signal of resistance to excessive fees.
“What that tells you is there’s a lot of people, like you’ve heard some of them tonight, that do not appreciate having a rate increase that they do not get to participate in,” said Gray, a Napa resident for nearly six decades. “If you get 2,000 people who object, there’s 10 times that many people out there that are objectors. They just haven’t read their mail, haven’t taken the time to give you the feedback you’re getting tonight.”
A government cleanup effort of wildfire-burned homes kicked into gear this week in such areas as Atlas Peak and Soda Canyon.
The government’s contractor is working on 18 sites simultaneously, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spokesman Luke Burns said on Wednesday. That could rise to 22 sites or more simultaneously by week’s end.
Work crews remove the foundation and haul out debris, Burns said. Each site might take two to three days to clean, and longer for a big job. Property owners will be left with dirt.
“It’s going to be a clean slate and they can get back to rebuilding,” he said.
The Atlas, Nuns and Tubbs fires destroyed more than 500 homes in Napa County, according to Cal Fire. Property owners can either do the cleanup job themselves or let the government do it.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency is partnering with the Corps of Engineers on the government debris removal program. Property owners pay nothing, though they must assign to the government any insurance proceeds they are due for debris removal.
Work crews by Wednesday had finished cleanup at one site, but this involved an outbuilding. Burns called it a “very small site.”
He expected a bigger job on Atlas Peak Road to be finished soon. Workers had removed 15 truckloads of debris.
Cleanup isn’t done on a first-come, first-serve basis. Burns said there’s no line tied to the order that applications are received. Rather, the contractor looks at issues such as clusters of homes and access and tries to work in the most efficient manner.
“We know people want to move on as quickly as possible,” Burns said.
The government gives property owners a 24- to 48-hour notice before debris removal, Burns said. That allows the owners to be present for the removal, if they wish.
FEMA is aiming to have the cleanup work done by early next year, he said.
The deadline to apply for the government cleanup program is 5 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 9. Go to the county website at www.countyofnapa.org to find the application.
At Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, county officials said 282 owners had applied for the government cleanup program. Another seven had submitted debris-and-ash removal applications for private cleanup.
Planning, Building and Environmental Services Director David Morrison expected many more government cleanup applications to come in before Thursday’s deadline.
“This is a limited-time opportunity and people need to take advantage of it while it’s happening,” he said.
Ash and debris are tied to the county’s declared public health emergency and need to be cleared as quickly as possible, Morrison said. He sees the government program as a good way to accomplish this goal.
Waste from burned-out homes can wash from the house site into the watershed during the rainy season, a county report said.
A south Napa County park-to-be with several miles of planned trails looks like it will be as large as its creators envisioned.
The Napa County Regional Park and Open Space District is poised to buy an additional 298 acres for Suscol Headwaters Preserve. That will boost the preserve to a total of 709 acres.
Various funding pieces to buy the additional land for $2.6 million came together in time for the Oct. 31 deadline. What remains is for the checks to clear and escrow to close.
District officials say Suscol Headwaters has that classic real estate attribute of location, location, location. Most county residents won’t have to travel far to reach it. It includes hills north of Highway 12 at the entrance to Jameson Canyon, near both the city of Napa and American Canyon.
“Eighty percent of the population lives within 10 minutes of what will be the trailhead,” District General Manager John Woodbury said.
It’s unclear when Suscol Headwaters might open to the public. Woodbury said the optimistic view might be a year, if everything falls in place. The preserve could open in phases.
“When we open, we’ll make a lot of noise,” Woodbury said. “We’ll be so excited it’s open, we’ll make sure everyone knows.”
About half of the property burned in backfires set by firefighters to battle the recent Atlas Fire, Woodbury said. That includes a ridge with sweeping views of the Bay Area.
“It was rangeland,” he said. “A few trees burned. But other than that, the fire was probably a good thing for the environment … chaparral was designed to burn.”
People probably won’t notice the burned areas as rains turn the land green, he said.
Napa County in one sense owes the Suscol Headwaters expansion to the official state amphibian, the California red-legged frog.
In 2014, Caltrans finished building a wider Highway 12 through the frog habitat of Jameson Canyon. Under endangered species laws, it had to protect frog habitat at another location. The agency is meeting this obligation by contributing $2.1 million toward the Suscol Headwaters expansion purchase.
But the frogs need a pond to live in. The Open Space District will create one at a cost of about $172,000 and has found the site on the preserve.
“It’s already a natural spring,” Woodbury said. “It’s sort of a pond already. We have to make it a little deeper and larger and get some exclusionary fencing.”
No red-legged frogs have been found at the site. Woodbury said the pond might attract them. Also, he said, it might be possible to bring red-legged frogs to the pond.
On Sept. 28, the state Coastal Conservancy contributed another $400,000 needed for the purchase of the additional 298 acres for Suscol Headwaters. The property includes prime steelhead habitat and potential habitat for 63 rare species, an agency report said.
In addition, Suscol Headwaters trails will allow hikers to link with trails to the north, on the Tuteur Ranch and in Skyline Wilderness Park, the report said. The expansion purchase in particular closes a small gap in this system.
The Napa Valley Transportation Authority, Solano Transportation Authority and Open Space District also contributed money to the Suscol Headwaters expansion purchase.
Suscol Headwaters was once part of a large ranch owned by Kirkland Cattle Co., the Coastal Conservancy report said. In 2008, an agricultural investment group bought 2,100 acres.
The investment group now known as Suscol Mountain Vineyards, LLC, has a county permit allowing vineyards to be planted on much of the property. The group agreed to sell part of its land to the Open Space District to become Suscol Headwaters Preserve.
In 2015, the Open Space District bought 411 acres from Suscol Mountain Vineyards for $900,000. Woodbury said the second phase purchase of 298 acres is costing more at $2.6 million because part of this land has vineyard approvals, though no vineyards.
His voice hoarse from talking to claim adjusters, Napa insurance executive Kent Imrie on Tuesday afternoon addressed a gathering of local business people interested in information about financial assistance and other opportunities as a result of the October wildfires.
“There is no rule book, per se” for settling insurance claims from a disaster like this, he said.
“It can be a daunting process.”
Imrie was one of several speakers who presented information about insurance, claims, disaster loans and other capital resources for those impacted by the fires.
The event was hosted by the Napa Chamber of Commerce and held at the Silverado Resort and Spa. That property was itself threatened by the Oct. 8 wildfires that destroyed more than 500 homes and a number of businesses in Napa County.
“One thing that makes this community so special is how we all try to assist each other in these situations,” said Travis Stanley, Napa Chamber president and CEO. “There are opportunities and resources people probably aren’t fully aware of and that’s what we hope to help them with.”
Imrie said one common question is whether a business that suffered a loss of revenue from cancelled reservations, bookings and appointments can receive any kind of insurance benefits via a business interruption policy.
“The quick answer is that there is no insurance for that kind of loss,” he said. In most cases, “There has to be a direct physical loss to your premises” for any such business interruption insurance coverage to apply, he said.
A forced evacuation, such as occurred in Calistoga, is different, according to Jeff Erickson, an insurance broker with ISU Sander Jacobs in Napa. In that case, because the entire town was evacuated, some insurance benefits from a business interruption policy may be applicable.
“Talk to your agent, turn in your claim and see where it goes from there,” Erickson advised.
Sally Xu-Plants, the owner of the Inn on Randolph, said she attended the meeting to find out about available resources.
“It’s always good to know what’s out there,” she said. Perhaps some of her staff might benefit from available aid.
While her Inn didn’t have any fire damage, cancellations from guests caused her off season to start a little earlier than normal, she said. However, “It’s a short set back,” said the inn owner. “We’re not going anywhere.”
RE/MAX Gold Realtor Bob Frappia said he came to the event so he could inform his clients about options when it comes to cost recovery or financing.
Frappia said a lack of inventory for buyers is one concern for the Napa real estate market.
For example, after the fires, “we had four listings that got pulled and turned into rentals,” he said.
Frappia said the owners of those homes saw an opportunity to help people who have been displaced and at the same time improve their cash flow. But that also means four less homes are listed for sale in an already tight market.
Bill Koontz, who works in disaster assistance for the U.S. Small Business Administration, recommended that business owners consider an SBA loan and register with FEMA even if they don’t think they need assistance right now.
“I’ve talked to a lot of business owners who four weeks in have thought, ‘I’ve got enough insurance to rebuild,’” said Koontz.
However, “In my experience, you really don’t know what’s ahead and how much you’ll have to pay. You may not know what your insurance settlement will be.” That process will take time, he said. “The SBA can give you a short term cash solution.”
As for help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, “There could be later some kind of assistance that we don’t know about today,” such as new grant programs. “How will they know to call you if you haven’t registered with FEMA?”
Koontz also pointed out that due to other disasters, including the recent string of hurricanes, there is a backlog in the SBA application process.
“We help folks on a first come, first serve basis,” he noted.
Getting a loan can take up to four weeks. There is no fee to apply and if approved, you don’t have to accept the loan, he said.
Dan Aguilar, senior vice president, Mechanics Bank, said the bank was already helping clients in different ways including waving some ATM fees, offering free cashier checks and providing access to safety deposit boxes after keys are lost due to the disaster.
“Now we’re starting to plan for the future,” said Aguilar. Specifically, “We know capital will be needed for rebuilding.”
Construction loans will be critical. Unfortunately, since the great recession fewer banks are offering such loans.
“That has got to change,” said Aguilar. “There needs to be cooperation that is almost unprecedented between regulators, governments and banks so we can be more helpful to our clients. It’s a real tall order and something that will be sorely needed.”
Michael Cummings, a FEMA spokesman, applauded the coordinated relief efforts already implemented in the area. Those include efforts by the Napa Valley Community Foundation, the California Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development and the California Infrastructure and Economic Development Bank (IBank) — other agencies also represented at the Chamber event.
In the other disasters he’s been involved with, “I’ve seen many times when this kind of conversation doesn’t happen for months or years down the road,” Cummings said.
“Take advantage of these people up here,” he said of the program participants. “They are here to help you.”
Cummings also noted one silver lining. Sometimes rebuilding after a disaster like the fires can lead to unanticipated improvements.
“I’ve seen many (areas) come back even stronger” after such a disaster, by adding innovation, critical infrastructure improvements, different construction techniques and other technology, he added.