I first raised the question of financial responsibility for the Upper York Creek Dam removal and habitat restoration project in a letter to the editor in the St. Helena Star dated Dec. 23, 2010. I voiced similar concerns several times at the city council over the past seven years and wrote a letter to the editor on this, and other topics, on Feb. 21, 2017.
In my view, this important project is at least partially a General Fund obligation for both legal and equitable reasons. The City promised as far back as the early 1990s to remove the dam and restore the surrounding habitat. The City failed to meet its promises, and as a result of excessive delay, project costs have substantially escalated from approximately $1.5 million to $6.5 million. These increased costs have placed an onerous and unfair financial burden on current water ratepayers, who have received no benefit from this legacy project.
One could certainly maintain that there has been a breach of trust in delaying the dam project for nearly 25 years because the costs of this delay are now being heavily absorbed by water ratepayers. One also could argue that we have clear precedent for making equitable use of General Funds when we subsidize struggling residential water and sewer ratepayers, both inside and outside the city, and when we consider making similar equitable sewer bill adjustments for some small businesses.
The question of financial responsibility for the Upper York Creek Dam and surrounding habitat has been ongoing long before the passage of our Measure D sales tax. The good news is that Measure D funds are not necessary to partially pay for the dam removal project because the City is projecting increased General Fund revenues from other sources, including property tax, sales tax and transient occupancy tax.
The council's expressed intent in supporting Measure D was to avoid “severe cuts in critical services that make us a community.” At this point, there is no evidence that allocating some General Funds to partially pay for dam removal would require using the $1.4 million expected from Measure D, lead to departmental reductions over last year’s budget or force cuts in “critical services.”
In fact, the City is projecting significant increases in General Fund revenues above and beyond those expected from Measure D. With increased revenues --combined with a council commitment to generally hold the line on expenses over last year -- it is very likely that the City can use revenue sources other than Measure D to partially address the fairness issues surrounding the lengthy delay in removing the dam.
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With respect to tapping the General Fund to cover a small portion of the dam removal project costs, no one is arguing for ongoing General Fund contributions to the Water Fund. A limited contribution over the next two fiscal years would be consistent with the City's agreement to use local matching funds when the City first applied for its successful EPA grant. It is also consistent with the documents legally obligating the "City of St. Helena" to remove the dam. From my perspective, it seems entirely reasonable and appropriate to use a small percentage of non-Measure D General Fund revenues for the dam removal project.
Importantly, at the time the Measure D ballot measure was being debated at the council level, I requested at the Sept. 13, 2016 city council meeting that we expressly allocate by percentage how we intend to use the additional Measure D revenue. I feared a lack of accountability because Measure D revenues are not separated from other General Fund revenues, and their use would be difficult to track. I also called for an annual audit process so that we could establish how exactly these additional tax revenues had been spent. Over my objections, the city council decided against making such commitments. Now, several months after the election, it seems dubious to attempt to characterize certain budget proposals as “Measure D” expenditures.
Likewise, given increased revenues above and beyond those expected from Measure D, and the prior council’s decision not to allocate the use of Measure D revenues by percentage, it seems misleading to claim a breach of the voters’ trust if the city council decides to allocate General Funds to partially support the dam project.
Finally, a city budget is not set in stone. If other pressing financial issues emerge or if the ad hoc utility committee makes a reasonable recommendation that precludes the need for using General Funds for dam removal, and if that recommendation is ultimately adopted by the city council, then we can easily adjust or update our budget accordingly.
St. Helena City Council Member