We checked in with Mayor Alan Galbraith on Friday, and if you’ve been reading the paper or paying attention to city government lately you won’t be surprised to learn that infrastructure financing was our primary topic.
It sounds like pretty dry stuff and the details are often esoteric, but if you’ve ever paid sales tax in St. Helena or paid a water/sewer bill, the questions being hashed out by the Ad Hoc Utility Rate Committee and the City Council will have major consequences for you.
First, some good news. Galbraith has called for a special council meeting on May 22 to discuss an interim solution to the crisis faced by local restaurateurs who are struggling with astronomical increases to their sewer bills. That needs to be the city’s top priority right now.
Also high on the agenda is the hiring of a new city manager. We invite residents to contact City Hall and apply for the five-member panel that will interview finalists for the job.
Most vexing is the question of whether to use General Fund dollars to pay for the removal of the Upper York Creek Dam which, being categorized as water project, would otherwise have to be paid for by water customers.
Galbraith made an impassioned, well-supported case – he’s nothing if not a details guy – that it would be fiscally imprudent and politically irresponsible to use the General Fund. To sum up a few of his points, he said the water fund should be self-sufficient, a General Fund transfer won’t help the water fund comply with its bond covenants, and it would be a betrayal of voters who were assured that Measure D sales tax revenue would be used for “proper General Fund expenditures,” not expensive water projects.
Councilmembers Mary Koberstein, Paul Dohring and Geoff Ellsworth have made the opposite and equally compelling case that water customers shouldn’t be responsible for more than 20 years of bureaucratic foot-dragging by city officials who have only recently made the dam’s removal a priority. Residents who are critical of the new rates have made a cogent argument that water customers have already paid their fair share toward a project that no longer deserves to be part of the water fund.
We’re not taking a position, except to say that it’s a monumental decision that needs to be based on facts, equitability for all (ratepayers and taxpayers), and rooted in a long-term perspective toward infrastructure management – a perspective that’s been sorely lacking in St. Helena over the years, with disastrous consequences.
We appreciate having a mayor at this point in our history with a deep understanding of details, regulatory obligations and best practices. However, there’s always a risk of going overboard, getting bogged down in the details of the latest crisis, and not factoring in the inevitable unforeseen consequences of any major decision.
What we really need from Galbraith and the rest of the council is prudent, factually based policy that looks at the long-term management of our facilities. Galbraith described to us a water tank near Bell Canyon that was allowed to get so dilapidated that it’s now beyond the point of repair. The city built a $1.8 million tank to replace it, and the old one, which at one point could have been fixed for a lot less money, is just sitting there empty.
We can’t let that happen again. We have to inject a long-term view of infrastructure management into our short-term decision-making. Things that make sense in the heat of the 2017 budget season might seem like a boondoggle in 20 years.
We can’t expect clairvoyance from the council, but we must demand leadership.