Emerging from the sewers

Activists transform sewage fees into a debate about urban sprawl

ACORN is one of several progressive groups that make up the Coalition for Sewer Fee Fairness, which hopes to make it more costly to develop the wide open spaces around Sacramento. Pictured (left to right) are Bill and Mary Wallis, Brenda Seher and Bill Maynard.

ACORN is one of several progressive groups that make up the Coalition for Sewer Fee Fairness, which hopes to make it more costly to develop the wide open spaces around Sacramento. Pictured (left to right) are Bill and Mary Wallis, Brenda Seher and Bill Maynard.

Photo By Larry Dalton

The Coalition for Sewer Fee Fairness may not have changed the outcome of a recent hearing over a sewer fee structure that it says induces urban sprawl. But this unique coalition’s activism is helping to transform how policy-makers view an issue that is expected to heat up in coming months.

“At the board meeting, we were shaping the terms of the debate,” said Brian Kettenring of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN). “Our comments and questions changed the way the debate took place.”

Despite the coalition’s press conference, protest rally and flood of e-mails sent to policy-makers before last month’s hearing, the Sacramento Regional Sanitation District voted 5-4 to approve a 46 percent increase in sewer connection fees.

That was not the outcome the coalition had hoped for, but the group is determined to hold the board to its promise to work with community leaders to develop a plan that doesn’t force in-fill projects to subsidize urban sprawl.

“We made some progress. It didn’t go exactly as we had hoped, but the good news is that it directed staff to come back with a revised fee structure,” said Sacramento City Councilman Dave Jones. “Given the lack of progress on this front historically, the outcome was somewhat positive.”

Jones said the group successfully prodded the sanitation district to take “a serious look at changing the way it has charged for decades.” Sacramento Mayor Heather Fargo, who voted against the fee increase, was also hopeful.

“At the end of the day, the mayor was disappointed with the board’s decision, but was glad there was a commitment to work on the issue and develop an in-fill policy that doesn’t punish people for building in an area that already has existing infrastructure,” said Chuck Dalldorf, the mayor’s chief of staff.

Dalldorf explained that what really affected the board’s decision to re-evaluate the issue were the public testimonies from the community leaders, business owners and developers that make up the coalition. Yet now the real work begins.

“We intend to keep visible on this and make sure it happens. We see this as a victory, but we haven’t finished yet,” said Rachel Iskow of the Sacramento Housing Alliance.

With all efforts focused on moving this issue forward, coalition members will continue to employ direct action strategies when necessary. But Jones said that’s not enough. In coming weeks, he and Kettenring will meet with coalition members to discuss the creation of their own proposal to present to the sanitation board.

Although the details have not yet been worked out, their plan will certainly reflect a differentiated cost for service. But they must work swiftly to have a proposal ready by April or May to present to the district before it returns its own proposal to the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors in June.

Sanitation district representatives say they have no intention of sweeping this issue under the rug. They have formed a team of eight to 10 district staffers, which includes district engineer Bob Shanks. The district’s chief financial officer, Marcia Maurer, is overseeing the project.

“We’re diligently working and committed to going before the board in June. We’re not going to delay this process,” said Maurer. “We expect a lot of input from the cities and communities and welcome that as we move the plan forward.”

Maurer said the board will receive a conceptual plan in June. Coalition members will receive a copy of the proposal a week or two before this first presentation.

Then, during July and August, the plan will be presented to the various jurisdictions that the sanitation district serves, giving them an opportunity to make comments. Their input will be incorporated into a final package to be presented to the board by November.

Maurer said changing the fee structure is a lengthy process. The recently approved increase becomes effective April 28, making the cost of hooking up a single-family home jump from $2,404 to $3,500.

Over the next three years, it will reach $5,255 and is designed to help pay for the construction of new sewer lines in new growth areas. The coalition opposes any plan that will discourage development in existing neighborhoods located in the urban core, while exacerbating development in outlying suburbs.

The revised fee structure would have each area paying a different fee, so that in-fill projects would no longer be in the position of subsidizing services to new growth areas.

As plans move forward, coalition members such as Mary Brill, president of the Sacramento Alliance of Neighborhoods, are excited by the unprecedented collaboration of diverse organizations: “I was so excited to see groups coming together for the first time in Sacramento over a regional issue.”

It was less than eight months ago that Jones met with ACORN organizers Bill Maynard and Kettenring to discuss the sewer fee issue. That meeting gave birth to the idea of forming a coalition composed of elected officials, representatives from neighborhood associations, business leaders and environmentalists.

“This is very exciting,” Jones said. “Sacramento has long needed a smart growth coalition. And other issues, like the extension of spheres of influence and investments in transportation, will benefit from this (sewer fee) issue.”

With ACORN’s help, the coalition has raised public awareness about an issue that would ordinarily be uninteresting and would probably go unchallenged.

“Historically, major decisions about growth were made in obscurity and out of the public eye," Jones said. "These events show that public input can make a difference, and that decision-makers will listen. We want people to know this."