Dirty jobs

Panel takes up sewer fees and vacancies

“This isn’t something operating for a profit. It’s solely for the benefit of Chico.”

That was part of the rationale Chico City Councilman Jim Walker employed before voting in favor of a proposed increase in sewer fees during the council’s regular meeting Tuesday evening (April 5).

Walker was referring to the Water Pollution Control Plant (WPCP) and the nonprofit utility’s request for monthly fee increases during the next three years to pay for the rising costs of operating, maintaining and improving sewer services. The issue was the last item on the agenda during an otherwise uncontroversial meeting.

In fact, the panel cast unanimous votes on each preceding item, including a property rezone near the airport and a draft plan on what the city intends to do with its allotted federal grant funding for housing and community development.

Not so with the sewer fees.

Quené Hansen, a city projects manager, explained that a revenue plan for the plant found that annual expenditures were exceeding revenues. Hansen said that determination occurred in 2009, during a revision of a previous plan that indicated growth in the city had declined and that the plant had seen fewer than the expected number of new users.

Meanwhile, Hansen noted during a long staff report, the plant grappled with a reduction in existing commercial users, while additional expenses, such as electricity and chemical costs, had risen.

The proposed rate increase would affect both residential and commercial users.

For residential users, the proposal calls for a three-step increase beginning in fiscal year 2011-12 with a bump of $3.69 per month, followed by increases of $1.64 and 66 cents in 2012-13 and 2013-14, respectively. Altogether, the new rates will generate an additional $3.7 million for the utility, which will collect an estimated $7.5 million this fiscal year.

Councilman Mark Sorensen was the first on the dais to question the fees. He pointed out that the inflows of wastewater have remained relatively flat and asked why it’s expected to jump next year. Hansen then pointed out that sewer connections out of the Nitrate Action Project in several areas, including the Chapman and Mulberry neighborhoods, will be constructed this summer.

That will mean an increased burden on the plant, but as Sorensen pointed out, it will also mean additional revenues from the users who hook up to the service. Sorensen, who is a member of the Chico Finance Committee and voted down the fee proposal at that level last month, remained unconvinced that the fees should go up. He said he would like to have seen a breakdown of WPCP’s increased expenses.

Councilman Bob Evans also questioned the proposal and the impact to businesses in particular. The proposed 31 percent bump will be burdensome, perhaps to the breaking point for some business owners, he said. “I think we’re reaching a little farther than we should,” he said.

Evans also voiced concerns about WPCP salary increases of 40 percent over the past five years. (Hansen clarified a short time later that the percentage was an overall increase, which included the hiring of two new employees.)

Mayor Ann Schwab noted that the new proposal will actually be less expensive to customers than the projected increases in a five-year plan the council approved back in 2008, and she echoed Walker by noting that the funding can be spent on nothing but sewer needs. She also read aloud a letter of support from the Chico Chamber of Commerce, which noted that proper infrastructure is important to economic development.

At the end of the discussion from the council, and with very little opposition voiced by members of the public, the panel voted 5-2 in favor of the proposed increases (Sorensen and Evans dissenting). Sewer customers will be noticed about the proposed fees by mail and will have an opportunity to attend a public hearing on the matter. The rate hikes will not be imposed if a majority opposes them.

In an unusual twist at the tail-end of the meeting, Evans brought up an issue during the business from the floor (the time when members of the public may speak on any topic). Evans said he would like the panel to take up the issue of setting a policy to fill future council vacancies.

Evans, who was appointed to fill the seat left vacant by now-Supervisor Larry Wahl, called the current process divisive and polarizing, referring not only to his appointment but also to previous ones. Because the item was not on the agenda, the council agreed to properly notice the issue and bring it up at the April 19 session.

“This might be a step to take the politics out of politics,” Evans said.