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Despite an opposition campaign by a taxpayers group, sewer rates in the city of Napa, the Silverado area and the airport industrial area will rise up to 53 percent over the coming five years to help replace and renovate aging pipelines.

The Napa Sanitation District Board of Directors approved a series of rate increases on Wednesday night by unanimous vote. Rates are to rise 15 percent this July, then rise 15 percent, 6 percent, 5 percent and 4 percent in subsequent years.

The Napa County Taxpayers Association mounted a campaign to try to stop the increases. Under Proposition 218, if half the district's parcel owners filed protest letters, the district Board couldn’t raise the rates.

Sewer district officials announced at the meeting that 2,238 protests had been lodged, well short of the 12,321 needed.

About 75 people attended the evening meeting at Napa Valley Unified School District headquarters. District officials used the first hour to explain to the skeptical audience why they think the increases are needed.

Everything isn’t set in stone. The Board has the power to lower the rates for any given year by passing a resolution saying that the district has sufficient revenues.

But barring such a change of mind, the annual charge for a home will rise from $482.50 to $554.88 in July. When the series of planned increases ends in July 2020, the rate will be $738.62. Payments are made annually as part of the property tax bill.

“We owe it to ourselves so our sewer system will remain in good shape,” Board Member Charles Gravett said. “And we owe it to our children so when they grow up, they’ll have a sewer system that’s working.”

The increases will raise district revenue from $19.5 million annually to $31.4 million annually in 2020-21. Among other things, it will allow the district to increase the amount of sewer pipes it replaces and repairs from 1 percent annually to 2 percent annually.

District General Manager Tim Healy explained how cracked, aging pipes in the 270-mile underground system allow groundwater to enter the sewers. That, in turn, brings a risk of sewer collapses and overflows onto streets and into storm drains that lead to the Napa River.

“Nearly one-third of our sewer system is approaching 50 years old,” Healy said.

Also, the rate increases will allow the district to borrow money for the planned, $15 million to $20 million Browns Valley Road Sewer Interceptor. This project is designed to free up capacity in the sewer system in the Browns Valley area and downtown Napa.

The Browns Valley Road Sewer Interceptor will reduce the risk of sewer overflows, Healy said, adding that the project must be done whether or not more development takes place in Napa.

But resident Janice Andrade saw the rate increases from the perspective of those on fixed incomes who will find the extra cost a burden.

“You know, just because you have the power to mess with my budget doesn’t mean that you should,” Andrade said to applause.

The audience had plenty of questions.

Resident Robert Francis asked why the district doesn’t index the sewer rates to water use. That way, a single-person household that sends little water down the sinks and toilets wouldn’t pay the same rate for sewer services as household of six.

Healy said that the data from the water providers isn’t in a format the district can use. Basing the sewer rate on water usage is an issue the district will look at in the next few years.

Resident Joseph Vitelli  said developers pay a capacity fee to build the extra sewage system capacity needed by their projects. But this expansion fund was in debt to ratepayers by $12.6 million in 2008 and the debt has grown to $30.6 million, he said.

“The developers need to be paying their fair share,” Vitelli said. “We’ve been paying our fair share, plus $30.6 million.”

District Director of Administrative Services Jeff Tucker explained that sewer and sewage treatment capacity must be built before development takes place, with the expansion projects based on city and county growth plans. That leads to a deficit in the expansion fund that is covered mostly by ratepayers.

Then, when the development goes forward, developers pay back the money through capacity fees. District officials noted the Archer Hotel recently paid a fee of $1.9 million.

Board member and Napa City Councilman Peter Mott suggested the district might be able lessen some of the planned rate increases as development takes place and developers pay down the deficit.

The Board also approved a low-income sewer rate program with a rebate of 28 percent. A person qualifying for the program would pay $399.52 for sewer service next fiscal year, rather than the proposed rate of $554.88.

Board members expressed empathy for the comments they heard from the public during a meeting that lasted three and a half hours. But they also authorized the rate hikes to make sewer system improvements they said are needed and would lead to higher costs if ignored.

“I don’t feel like I would be doing my job if I didn’t support this rate increase,” said Board Member and county Supervisor Keith Caldwell.

Also voting for the increase were Napa Mayor Jill Techel and public member David Graves.

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Napa County Reporter

Barry Eberling covers Napa County government, transportation, the environment and general assignments. He has worked for the Napa Valley Register since fall 2014 and previously worked 27 years for the Daily Republic of Fairfield.

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