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City of Portola committee looks into rate study

Diana Jorgenson
Portola Editor

The ad hoc committee formed to review proposed city water and sewer rate hikes gave its first report at the May 25 regular meeting of the Portola City Council. In response to significant public outcry during the Proposition 218 process, Mayor Pro Tem Juliana Mark and council member William Weaver were appointed to the committee to look into other options.

County Supervisor Terry Swofford and Earl Morrison, Joe Moctezuma, Loretta Crumley and Jeanne Dansby, who provided community input into the review, also attended the first meeting May 23.

Mark gave the report to the council, saying that during their first meeting they had itemized the questions they would need answers to and outlined the issues needing research.

“Our function that night was basically to get our thoughts in a row and focus on what we needed to focus on,” Mark said.

In particular, Mark reported that they wished to review the accounting process for the water and sewer enterprise funds and re-examine the division of revenues between the funds. They wanted to review employee salaries within the context of the proposed budget.

They also wish to review equipment replacement costs and examine the city’s water usage and payments for water.     They wanted to look into the possibility of income-based reductions for qualifying residents.

They wanted to look into green technology for wastewater. They also wanted to know whether other communities Portola’s size were raising rates or not and, if they were, by how much. They wanted to know what other communities were doing to control their rates.

They also wanted to know about the landfill closure and the associated fee. What is the remaining obligation and how soon can it be fulfilled?

And they wanted to know if HDR, the author of the rate study commissioned by the city of Portola, would work with the council to make equitable adjustments to the rate study at no extra charge.

City Finance Office Susan Scarlett agreed to ask HDR questions on their behalf and suggested that city staff be utilized for information before going to outside sources.

Weaver thanked Dansby for taking notes at the meeting and offering to research information as well as look into establishing a website forum.

City Attorney Steve Gross gave a short explanation of the landfill closure history. When the state closed landfills, Gross explained, it required that it be sealed off from surface waters in order to forestall contaminants from leaching into the area. The cost was prohibitive so the city began collecting fees to save for the project.

The state later allowed for partial closure and that’s what the city finally did, but the current tarp needed to be replaced with a thicker — and more expensive — tarp and then covered with two feet of dirt.

Scarlett added that the city was looking into finding a low-interest loan to allow it to complete the closure, but it would still need to collect the fee until the loan was repaid. It currently has $725,000 in the landfill closure fund.

Gross also reported that he had researched the Proposition 218 process further and found it open-ended as to when increases had to be implemented. As long as the rate increase was not above the amount set already in the process, it would not require it to be restarted, although that, he noted, was also an option.

Mark was relieved that the council had time to further review the rate without pressure.

Gross also made the admission that while the general fund could contribute to enterprise funds, it may not be advisable because there were 115 water and sewer customers outside the city limits, and it could be argued that to use “city” money on their behalf was unfair.

As a general policy, expenses by enterprises are expected to be met by revenue; therefore, the committee needed to consider how the difference would be paid, if low-income discounts were allowed.

The committee set a future meeting date for June 2 at 5:15 p.m. at the library meeting room and invited members of the public to attend.

In their recent attempts to involve residents in decision-making and to better find out what Portola citizens consider to be important issues, council members have begun a series of Coffee Klatches to visit with the public at large. Future meeting dates were set for the summer months: June 25 at Nicole’s Coffee Shop with William Weaver and Juliana Mark, July 30 at Red and White with John Larrieu and Juliana Mark, Aug. 27 at Subway with Juliana Mark and John Larrieu (or Mayor Dan Wilson).

Acting City Manager Leslie Tigan announced at the meeting that City Manager Jim Murphy, currently out on medical leave, was expected to return to his job June 1. For that reason, the budget meeting was rescheduled for Tuesday, June 7, at 5:15 p.m.

In other news, Tigan reported that the contract with Hat Creek Construction for the A15 street project had been signed and construction would begin soon, weather permitting.

The city received five applications for the Façade Improvement Grant program for a requested $200,000. Only $125,000 was available for this round. The finance committee as well as the state will now review applicants for final acceptance.

The playground equipment destroyed by fire at Baldwin Park has now been replaced.

Tigan also reported that the city had not put out its propane purchases to bid for several years and had recently done so. It received five bids and accepted Amerigas as the lowest bid. The council approved a three-year contract.

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