By John Crowder
The Antioch City Council, on two votes, one split and one unanimous, voted to increase both sewer and water rates for Antioch residents, at the May 12 council meeting.
Following a public hearing at which Antioch residents spoke out against Water and Sewer Rate increases proposed by city staff, and Mayor Pro Tem Lori Ogorchock questioned the need for tiered water rates, the council approved both.
The first vote on the tiered rates was split, with Ogorchock casting the lone dissenting vote and the second vote, for capacity charges, passing unanimously.
According to a staff report by City Engineer and Director of Public Works Ron Bernal, “The proposed rate adjustments are necessary to maintain the financial stability and the structural integrity of the City’s Enterprise Programs.”
He also said, “If these enterprise funds run dry, the General Fund would be tapped to provide the funding necessary to operate the enterprises.”
According to Bernal, the rate adjustments were due to, “new regulatory mandates, as well as increased costs affecting both Water and Sewer operations.”
He listed operating and maintenance expenses including labor, utilities, supplies and materials, and capital expenditures for infrastructure. Bernal also referenced, “the rising costs of purchasing and treating water.”
This year, due to the high salinity levels in the river, from where Antioch usually pumps most of it’s water, the city is having to purchase 95% of its untreated water from the Contra Costa Water District.
Under California law, a city council is unable to increase water rates if half of those impacted by the new rates object in writing. In order to ensure compliance with the law, during a break in the proceedings, City staff publicly counted all written objections to the proposed rate increase that had been received, and at the conclusion of the process the council was informed that only 54 comments had come in. The threshold for preventing the increase, based on the 31,056 notices sent to the public, was over 15,000 comments required to be in opposition.
In a lengthy discussion regarding the rate increases, council members, in particular Ogorchock and Rocha, questioned why a “tiered rate” was necessary, with Rocha pointing out that a larger family in a single household would be required to pay higher costs per person, even when they were using less water per capita.
At one point, Ogorchock put forward the idea of a motion that would allow for an overall increase, but with only one rate.
After comments by City Manager Steve Duran and City Attorney Lynn Nerland, however, with each pointing out that under her proposal the rate for the people who would have been under the lowest tier rate would be subject to a higher rate, it was determined that such a decision would require another notice be sent to the public notifying them of the new rate structure, and she determined not to pursue her idea.
Water and sewer funds used for police, other budget items
Another issue raised by Ogorchock dealt with money being transferred out of the water and sewer funds.
“When I’m looking at the study, the sewer fund, Fund 621, when I’m looking at transfers out, and it has with rate increase and with no rate increase, what are the transfer outs for ‘15-’16 for $602,375? Then in ‘16-’17 they’re going to go up to $678,592, do we know that?” she asked.
Merchant responded to Orgorchocks questions.
“So, there’s several transfers out that are part of there,” she said. “A few hundred thousand goes to pay for police services protecting the water and sewer enterprise. The sewer fund has the transfer out as well, There’s a hundred thousand dollars that goes toward capital project sidewalk improvements, which is paid for out of the capital improvement fund. Part of the transfers out go to pay for GIS services…mapping the water and sewer lines in the ground, so it’s broken up into several portions of that.”
In response to a further query by Ogorchock, Merchant said, “And in the water fund the transfers are of the same nature.”
Public Works staffing rejected
During an earlier special budget session, prior to the regular council meeting, Mayor Wade Harper was joined by Antioch City Council Members Tony Tiscareno and Monica Wilson in a 2-3 vote to reject a proposal by city staff to hire two new technicians requested by Antioch’s Public Works department. Council Member Mary Rocha and Ogorchock, who had made and seconded the motion to approve, voted for the positions.
Had the positions been approved, an additional expense of $131,000 per year would have been added to the City’s Water Fund and the same amount added to the City’s Sewer Fund, for a total of $262,000 in additional salary expense.
According to a staff report submitted to council members by Dawn Merchant, Antioch’s Finance Director, the positions were needed in order, “to make sure that data collected in the field is complete and accurately recorded to comply with State and Federal regulations as they apply to Water Distribution,” and so that reporting related to sewer management, “compliance is timely and accurate.” Other duties the positions would have assumed included coordination of training and providing education to the public.
During discussion regarding the positions, Harper, noting that only four months had elapsed since city worker furloughs were ended, asked why the duties to be performed under the new positions could not be done by current staff, perhaps through reclassification of certain jobs.
Mike Bechtholdt, Deputy Public Works Director for Antioch, responded to Harper.
“It’s strictly volume of work,” he stated. “Our Admin Staff, which is attempting to do some of this, they’re overwhelmed with calls and they’re starting to fall behind. And when you have water and sewer calls, you cannot fall behind. One fine, will more than pay for both of these technicians for years. So that’s why, one of my first statements was, we look at this as a defensive position.”
“We run the risk of liability and fines, and that’s the main reason for proposing this, basically trying to stay out of trouble and stay compliant,” he added.
Tiscareno expressed concern over the timing of the hiring proposal.
“I support the positions,” he said, “I don’t support at this particular time.”
After Tiscareno’s statement, Harper added, “My feelings are similar, I support it but not at this time.”
“We have to look at this in light of that entire department,” he added, and referenced the current salary negotiations being undertaken by the city and employees.
Wilson then stated she also felt the timing was wrong, and that, at this time, “we’re asking a lot of the citizens.”
The next city council meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, May 26, at 7:00 p.m. Meetings take place in the City Hall Council Chambers, located at 200 H Street. They can also be viewed on Comcast Channel 24 or via live stream on the city’s website at www.ci.antioch.ca.us.
Allen Payton contributed to this report.