By Reggie Ellis
The Woodlake City Council voted 4-0 to approve an increase in water and sewer rates at its July 11 meeting despite pleas from a roomful of residents who feared they would not be able to pay their bills.
Councilmember Gracie De La Rosa was absent from the meeting. The proposal was to increase water fees by $1 per month, per year for four years; increase sewer fees $5 per month per year for four years; and increase refuse collection fees by 50 cents per month per year for four years.
Woodlake residents currently pay $47 per month for city services including water ($16), sewer ($13) and refuse collection ($18) fees. Under the proposal, residents would pay $51 per month beginning Sept. 1; $60.50 beginning July 1, 2006; $67 beginning July 1, 2007; and $73.50 per month beginning July 1, 2008.
"Just looking at the amounts I'm getting scared," said Francisco Hernandez, one of about 50 residents who gathered at the Doris and Francis White Lions Community Center to voice their opposition to the fees. Many of the residents who addressed the council only spoke Spanish, leaving residents and councilmember Frances Ortiz to translate almost the entire meeting.
"In retrospect we probably should have had a translator," City Manager Bill Lewis said.
The last time the city needed a translator and had that many people at a council meeting was the last time they tackled the issue of water and sewer rates when the council approved a 50 cent increase per month per year in 1999. Lewis said Councilmember Ortiz also handled translating at that meeting and it seemed to go smoothly. But residents were unhappy this go round.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau more than 70% of Woodlake residents are Spanish speakers. One-third of residents are below the poverty level with 50% of households making less than $25,000 per year. "Families have trouble paying now," Teresa Correia said. "Some of us are already two to three months behind and struggling to pay. Why haven't you asked the state to help?"
"We have," Mayor Chuck Ray replied. "If you know of another option tell us."
"Please find another way," she said. "We didn't expect anything this way."
Many residents were upset that the meeting was moved from city hall to the community center, claiming that the city was trying to avoid facing the public. By law the city must send out a public notice to each person that pays a water, sewer, or refuse bill in Woodlake. The notice said the meeting would be held at city hall. Lewis said the meeting was moved to accommodate the number of people they expected at the meeting. However, there were clearly posted signs on both doors to city hall in English and Spanish that gave the new location and address for the meeting.
"You need to do more to let us know [about the fee increase]. Most of us are Hispanic and we don't care about flyers," said Adelia Cortez, who crumpled up the paper and tossed it in a nearby recycling bin. "We don't take the time to read this but you could put up big posters at the four-way stop to let us know."
The notice, which was printed in both English and Spanish, read "Residential, commercial, churches, and industrial rates will be raised by $1 per month, laundromats $5 per month and car washes $4 per month. In addition, fees will be raised annually thereafter $1 per month for four years. For residential customers this proposed increase will raise the total fee for water from the current $16 to $17 per month in September 2005, $18 per month in July 2006, $19 per month in July 2007 and to $20 per month in July 2008." Sewer rates were explained similarly increasing by $5 increments per month per year from the current $13 per month to $18 in September, $23 in 2006, $28 in 2007 and $33 in 2008.
"You want to do [all four years] in one shot," Cortez said. "You don't want to have to come back next year and announce it again."
There was also come confusion as to what the rate actually was. Gloria Villacana said many of the residents were confused if it was $1 per month per year, $1 per year or a $1 increase every month.
"It comes out to a $246 per year increase by 2008," Councilmember Raul Gonzales said. "There is no other way to pay for this because the state is in a worse bind than we are. If we could do it without the increases then by God we would do that. We are all residents. We will all pay. We [councilmembers] aren't exempt."
Why so much?
"What do you intend to do with that large of an increase," Earl Mann asked.
According to the city engineer's report, the sewer system needs a laundry list of improvements including a $5.6 million for equipment and construction; $3 million for piping, electrical, instruments, site preparation, insurance and contractor's overhead; and $1.3 million for engineering and construction supervision.
Mann suggested using the city's Utility Users Tax - a 6% fee on cable, telephone, gas and electric service - to pay for the upgrade to the sewer facility. "That should be used for this and not other needs, which I'm sure it's being used for something else."
Lewis said the city uses the tax for the police department. Mann then asked if the city was charging enough for developers to hook-up subdivisions to the city's system.
"We charge $770," Lewis said.
"That's it?" Mann replied. "May be you should be doing that before hitting the general public."
The reason for the discrepancy between the $1 water fee increase and the $5 sewer fee increase is the cost to upgrade the respective facilities. The city's water system needs approximately $3.48 million in improvements compared with $11.8 million for the sewer system.
"It's too bad 30 years ago they didn't plan for the future," Ortiz said.
Lewis said the reason past councils did not make upgrades to the sewer plant is because the city did not own the land it was located on. He said the city had an easement on the land of a mutual water company that was used for cattle grazing. The city's sewer effluence would trickle into the groundwater and fertilize the land for the cows. The city didn't want to make improvements until it owned the land, which it finally purchased nine months ago.
"Aren't you going to apply for any grants?" resident Antonio Contreras asked.
"If there is money available we will apply for it," Lewis said. "If that happens, then we will come back and adjust everything to cost."
Woodlake has already been awarded $950,000 in Community Block Development Grant funding -federal money administered through the state for rural development - for a new 500,000 gallon reservoir, a connection to the reservoir and a booster pump for upper pressure zones in the city's water system. However, the city must still pay for $2.5 million for another reservoir and booster pump, new wells, chlorination facilities and upgrades to existing connections.
"We are paying a lot to have done what needs to be done," the mayor said. "This has to be done."
"That's too much for this town," Ortiz translated for a man only identified as Mr. Rivas. "People work the fields here and don't earn money that easily. Instead we should do half of it."
After public comments closed, the council took the comments to heart as they struggled with the idea of burdening a community of low income residents. The council decided to take the water, sewer and refuse fees one at a time. The council voted to approve the $1 increase for water, reduced the sewer fee from $5 to $3 and voted against any refuse increase.
"If prices go up I'm still going to live in Woodlake because that's me," Ortiz said. "It's a lot of money for everyone."
The adjusted rates mean residents will pay $51 per month beginning Sept. 1; $55 beginning July 1, 2006; $59 beginning July 1, 2007 and $63 per month beginning July 1, 2008. Monthly water bills will increase by $192 a year by 2008.
The Woodlake City Council meets at 6:30 p.m. on the second and fourth Monday of each month, normally at city hall, located at 350 N. Valencia Blvd. For more information on city council meetings call 564-8055.