Letter raises a stink
Council balks at LAFCo demands
A veiled threat to sue the city contained in what Councilman Mark Sorensen called a “harsh” letter from the chairman of the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCo) had some Chico City Council members in high dudgeon at their meeting Tuesday (Jan. 21).
“When I read the letter, to say I had a negative reaction is a massive understatement,” Sorensen said.
LAFCo is the über-agency that oversees cross-jurisdictional development in the county, including annexation. It has seven members: two representing the cities, two representing special districts, two county supervisors and one public member, Chairman Carl Leverenz, author of the aforementioned letter, which was dated Dec. 19.
LAFCo and the city have been butting heads for several years because of the city’s practice of allowing sewer hookups in the Chapman/Mulberry neighborhood without requiring that the properties be annexed to the city, without obtaining authorization from LAFCo, and without paying LAFCo’s fees. Some 62 homes have been connected in that way.
Leverenz called these hookups “illegal.” He gave the city two options: Either “enter into a binding master annexation agreement to include a comprehensive extension of services authorization” or submit an application for the 62 unincorporated parcels, pay back fees in the amount of $37,200, annex the 26 parcels that are contiguous to the city and pay the appropriate fees, and reimburse LAFCo $17,606 for staff time spent working on the matter. He gave the council only until Jan. 3 to decide, a deadline that fell before the council’s next scheduled meeting. Failure to do so, he said, would lead LAFCo “to consider legal action to compel compliance.”
Neither option was palatable to the council members, who didn’t take kindly to Leverenz’s hectoring. For years, the city has been annexing county islands as LAFCo wishes, but now it no longer can afford to provide them with city services. In a few years, perhaps, but not now.
Councilwoman Ann Schwab, who is an alternate member of LAFCo, explained that the issue had its origins more than 20 years ago, when the state determined that septic tanks in Chico were polluting the shallow groundwater with nitrates. The city and county got together and created a Nitrate Action Plan, which called for the extension of city sewer lines along with annexation. That enabled the city to obtain funding and put in the lines. Thousands of homes, especially in north Chico, hooked up and were annexed.
LAFCo didn’t become involved until 2011, perhaps because the city was doing such a good job of annexation.
By then, Schwab continued, the city, which had recently extended sewer lines into Chapman/Mulberry, not only couldn’t afford to provide city services, it also didn’t insist on annexation. Most residents didn’t want it, and they had the backing of their county supervisor, Jane Dolan. Using a section of the government code that allows sewer hook-ups without annexation for health and safety reasons, the city continued to allow connections, but without LAFCo’s authorization.
“We did make some mistakes,” acknowledged Mark Wolfe, the city’s community development director. The city now refers sewer hookup applicants directly to LAFCo to obtain authorization, he said.
Steve Lucas, LAFCo’s executive officer, reminded the council that annexation doesn’t mandate additional services. Besides, having an annexation plan would “put the city back in the driver’s seat” on annexation, inasmuch as state law allows cities to annex unincorporated islands without the approval of their residents.
Council members, who know how insistent constituents can be when they want services, weren’t convinced. Ultimately, they voted unanimously to direct city staff to come up with a third option—a “win-win-win solution” for the city, county and LAFCo, as Schwab put it—and to pursue negotiations with LAFCo.
In other council news: The panel unanimously approved an update of the Sanitary Sewer Master Plan to conform with the 2030 General Plan. The sewer plan, prepared by Carollo Engineers Inc., predicts total flow into the city’s sewer plant will double by 2030, from 6.9 million gallons per day to 13.9 mgd. System upgrades will cost $63 million, with all but $9 million of that going to meet the needs of future users.
The council also approved four memoranda of understanding regarding pay and benefits for four employee bargaining groups, including firefighters. Assistant City Manager Mark Orme praised the employees for making benefits concessions—paying more for health insurance and pensions, in particular—to save money. The firefighters’ concessions alone will save $1.8 million, he said.