The 25-year history of St. Helena’s failure to remove the Upper York Creek Dam is a depressing saga with familiar themes of former city administrations’ poor planning, fiscal mismanagement and failure to comply with basic regulatory requirements.
But like a lot of sad stories, this one has a chance to end in redemption — though at a $6.5 million price.
There is zero chance or argument now about whether the dam needs to come out. The only question is when and how best to pay the hefty bill for its removal with the least inequity to the unlucky St. Helena taxpayers left holding this bag. The buck has stopped now with our current government, but it faces painful choices in its ongoing efforts to restore fiscal responsibility and credibility to St. Helena.
Last week, a divided St. Helena City Council decided to supplement funds that come from water rates and grant funding by taking some money out of the General Fund to help pay for the removal of the dam. We agree with that decision. The only questions now are how much should come out of the General Fund and how do we guarantee that this dive into the General Fund is a one-time correction, not an easy-fix precedent.
In this case, the council’s 3-2 split is a cause for celebration. Complex decisions like this are made most effectively not when our leaders are in lockstep, but when intelligent people on both sides of the issue are given a chance to make their cases.
Mayor Alan Galbraith and Councilmember Peter White deserve credit for sticking to the fundamental point that the water and wastewater funds should be self-sufficient. They’re right. Continually raiding the General Fund to keep those other funds afloat will inevitably lead to insolvency and disaster.
They’re also correct that the Measure D sales tax shouldn’t pay for expenses that are outside the General Fund. That argument is muddied by the fungibility of Measure D revenue within the General Fund – it’s not walled off as its own line item, so you can’t say which specific expenses it’s paying for. But we don’t think the city would have the luxury of diverting money from the General Fund if it weren’t for Measure D, so their basic point is still valid.
However, Councilmembers Paul Dohring, Mary Koberstein and Geoff Ellsworth argue this is a unique circumstance. They’re right. Past bureaucratic ineptitude at the staff level, a lack of adequate council oversight, and the massive distraction of a $30-plus million flood project put the dam on the back burner for years and resulted in cost estimates escalating from $1.5 million in 2001 to $6.5 million today.
St. Helena has been getting its fiscal house in order, and removing the dam is the latest step in that process. Beyond the environmental benefits, doing this will get the project off our books, enable our staff to move on to other tasks, give environmental activists one less reason to sue us, and prove to regulatory agencies that we’re done being scofflaws.
This isn’t a typical water project. Understanding why requires a brief history lesson, which is where Tom Belt comes in. He spent more than 30 years as a Fish & Game warden, and it has always bothered him that the city never got around to removing an obsolete structure that serves no purpose other than blocking the passage of spawning steelhead and periodically polluting York Creek through accidental releases of sediment.
He was so bothered that he filed a Public Records Act request last December and spent the last six or so months examining a whopping 5,500 pages of city records in hopes of calculating how much ratepayers have spent to date on removing the dam.
His answer, which city officials haven’t contradicted: at least $6 million and counting, with $3 million of that still available in the form of bonds. That doesn’t include countless hours of staff time over 25 years and expenses he couldn’t ascertain involving legal costs, lobbying expenses and preliminary environmental studies from the early 2000s.
The dam was built by private investors in 1900 and bought by the city in 1922. As the city grew and switched to Bell Canyon reservoir as its primary water source, the dam became obsolete and just sat there, literally collecting dust.
From time to time some of that sediment would break free and contaminate the spawning habitat downstream. At least the fourth such incident occurred in 1992, when Fish & Game filed a complaint and charged the city a token $5,000 fine.
The city agreed to an injunction to remove the dam, but never followed through. Permit applications were rejected for being incomplete. The court order was lifted in 2002 so that the city could file for grants. The city dissolved its partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers because the city couldn’t come up with its $900,000 share of the project cost.
In the last few years, the city has embraced fiscal responsibility and prioritized long-deferred capital projects like the dam. Suddenly the dam is scheduled to be gone by the end of 2018. If it isn’t, the city could forfeit some much-needed grant money.
Credit Tom Belt for compiling this timeline and tallying up the expenses. He’s a great example of an engaged citizen with a passion for facts. Also credit everyone in City Clerk Cindy Black’s office who dug through boxes of records to answer Belt’s questions.
Our current city staff and council deserve praise too for finally getting this done, with a combination of $3 million in bonds, $1.8 in grants, and a roughly $1.7 million shortfall that was going to be funded by water rates but will now be covered at least partially by the General Fund.
Mayor Galbraith could be right when he says this will have little or no effect on water rates, and his argument about Measure D funds is a strong one. But the equitability argument made by Belt and Dohring is more persuasive.
Tapping into the General Fund, in this one isolated situation, will atone for a history of poor fiscal management, not perpetuate it. Water customers have paid more than their fair share already, and they shouldn’t be penalized for the incompetency of previous city administrations.
What a long, sad story. But by the end of 2018, when the dam is gone, the fish are happy, and our city has moved on to face new challenges from a sound financial basis, it’ll be a happy ending indeed.