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Sewer Rate Hikes Nixed
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A vote to raise sewer system rates again failed to pass at the April 12 Riverbank City Council meeting because it drew only a 3-2 vote in favor and utility rate hikes require a four out of five majority vote.

Mayor Virginia Madueno called for a vote of no confidence against fellow council members Dave White and Jesse James White, who are opposed to the raises, but said she didn't know what more legally the council could do to pass the rate hikes.

The Whites reiterated they want to put the matter to an election of all the people instead of the protest ballot system followed under Proposition 218.

The proposal is to hike the existing monthly residential rate of $20.15 by about $6 over three years. The cost would go up by $3.64 in 2010 to 2011, by $1.21 the next year and by $1.05 the third year.

Dave White admitted the sewer system is in poor repair but added the raises will be too expensive for low-income residents. Jesse James White expressed belief the city administration is overpaid, the money for improvements should come from elsewhere than a rate hike and called for a retraction of a pay survey that raised city salaries and benefits in 2005.

Jesse James White said the city does not have to raise rates all at once, it could be done in phases and financed out of general fund reserves. He added he would consider changing his vote if the 2005 survey was rescinded.

City Manager Rich Holmer reminded the council it has held three Prop. 218 ballots in two years, has recorded only 22 votes in opposition, and currently risks incurring heavy fines from the Regional Water Quality Control Board if it fails to implement a system improvement plan or meet its financial obligations to the bondholders.

Having already spent about $82,000 on the Prop. 218 ballots, the city would incur a cost of $10,000 to $40,000 putting the sewer rate hikes on a general election. That would not include the cost of updating the survey on the need for sewer system improvements.

"We have showed due diligence," said Councilmember Dan Fielder. "We have held three ballots. We've done our job. We've taken it to the people. We went to everyone, renters besides parcel holders. The city could go bankrupt on fines or action by the bondholders."

"We've got that one line across the river. If that fails and sewage goes into the river, we are in serious trouble. We have no space to store sewage. And we are under notice of violation," said Holmer, noting state officials fined Dixon $275,000 in a similar situation.

"The sewer system is already failing. I've had raw sewage in my back yard," said Vice Mayor Sandra Benitez. "I've seen pipes patched with duct tape. Stanislaus Street has had several breaks and there was another two blocks to the east of me."

Jesse James White charged the city with drawing money from the sewer fund to cover pay raises for general personnel, saying, "the sewer fund is used as a 'gimme.' Many cities do it."

"I admit we have sewer repair problems," added Dave White. "But 23 people are paid out of the sewer fund to the sum of $2 million."

Holmer countered a portion of 23 staff members' salaries come from the sewer fund, 15 percent of his for example, but the city actually has only the equivalent of 7.5 staff working fulltime on the sewer system and the amount of their pay drawn from the sewer fund is closer to $750,000 than $2 million.

Among speakers from the floor, one said the city should change the "protest vote" system required by Prop. 218 or "more people will come out of the woodwork."

"As a nurse, I know the health risks," added speaker Dottie Nygard. "Consider something like cholera in Haiti. I'm for the improvements. We cannot risk the community's health."