Public hearing addresses water rate increase

The Chester Public Utility District board of directors attended its regular board meeting Oct. 17, with an emphasis on issues pertaining to a proposal to hike water rates after a 15-year delay, and also contract for services with SCI Consulting Group to initiate a district-wide survey on an anticipated parcel tax assessment increase to help bolster fire services.

Several community members attended the meeting to ask questions and to express their dismay over the district’s plans to raise water rates.

Before that discussion got underway however, the board heard from representatives of the Fairfield-based SCI Consulting Group, Valarie Flores and Maria Garcia-Adarve, on the company’s proposal to initiate a public opinion survey and feasibility analysis on behalf of CPUD to assist in the district’s decision to hold a special ballot measure to increase the local parcel tax.

Adarve, SCI senior consultant, said the company has been in business for over 32 years, helping public agencies with finding funding sources primarily through ballot parcel tax or assessment measures, and assist agencies with impact studies in addition to administering the paperwork for financial reports that are required by the state.

Adarve provided the board members with copies of the SCI Consulting Group’s written proposal to provide a public opinion survey as a precursor to the district moving to advance a ballot funding measure.

“We have learned through experience that when the community is informed, it is likely to be more supportive of an increase in the parcel tax when they are part of the process,” she said, and “understand the reason behind the hike,” in this case for fire and emergency services, which have been running a deficit for the past several years, according to CPUD Chairman Wes Scott.

Property owners would be given a page explaining the purpose of the survey, Adarve said and also a questionnaire to complete, which is sent back to the company’s office in Fairfield where the data would be compiled along with demographic information supplied by the county. SCI would provide a comprehensive 20-page report consisting of a detailed analysis of the survey plus a recommendation and distribute its findings back to the district for review.

She said that SCI’s success rate is around 94 percent, referring to the percentage of ballot measures calling for parcel tax rate increases approved by voters.

Adarve suggested that the board hold a special ballot measure after the survey is completed during an upcoming election year in either March, May or August, rather than during the June or November elections when most ballots are cast, because the cost is less to the district, and also in order to simplify the ballot to make it easier for voters.

The consulting service, including the mailed out survey and analysis, together with a final draft of the results would take approximately four to five months to complete, Adarve informed the board, at a cost to the district of approximately $30,000.

A temporary committee would be formed, Motzkus recommended, to disperse information to the public on the survey and parcel tax proposal, and to build public support as part of the overall effort to pass the ballot measure whenever it was enacted, most likely in 2018 or 2019.

Director Steve Trotter made a motion to approve the expenditure, which the directors endorsed by unanimous vote.

General Managers Report

In other district news, District General Manager Frank Motzkus read the general managers report to the board.

Local Union 39 negotiations

Motzkus said that the Local 39 Firefighters Union negotiations had been ratified, with a final memorandum of understanding  expected soon for board review.

He said changes to the firefighters contract included a three-year term, up to an additional two days vacation time based on accrual of shifts, two weeks paid leave following the birth or adoption of a child within a six month period, a new shift schedule, an increase in uniform allowance from $100 to $200 per quarter, extra money paid to staff members participating in the 457 Program, an educational certificate incentive pay of $150 a month increase if a union employee holds a BA/BS or Fire Officer or Company Officer Training credential, among other benefits.

The board of directors without further comment approved the contract.

Broussard annexation

Travis and Kacie Broussard, owners of a 50-acre parcel north of Chester, have turned in the last piece of paperwork required by LAFCo, completing their obligations to that agency so their property can be annexed into the town of Chester.

Motzkus said the couple would soon be receiving billing for the district’s water, sewer and fire services.

Watershed management group

The Upper Feather River Watershed Management Group met Oct. 13 to discuss which district projects were eligible under Proposition 1, passed by California voters in 2014 authorizing $7.12 billion in general obligation bonds for such projects as public water system improvements, drinking water protection, water treatment technology, wastewater treatment and protecting and restoring local watersheds.

Grant request

Motzkus said work continues with the Kahlen Group, an engineering firm, and Spatial Wave, a company that digitizes records, to submit a grant request to the State Water Resources Control Board worth up to $8 million in construction funds for upgrading CPUD’s wastewater collection system. He said he’s still waiting for the draft “Plan of Study” from the Kahlen Group, which is the last bit of information needed before submitting a request.

Violation notice Motzkus announced the receipt of a notice of violation from the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board, “for violating our wastewater discharge requirements, which includes a $6,000 fine,” if they recommend the penalty to the State Water Resources Control Board.

Motzkus said he wrote a response letter explaining that due to groundwater infiltration from a much higher-than-normal rainfall during the winter months, that starting in mid April more than the normal amount of treated wastewater had to be released to Lake Almanor, rather than having sewage flow in an uncontrolled way and overflowing the district’s wastewater ponds.

“We did what we had to do for public safety,” he told the members. “I also explained to them that we’re working on applying for a planning grant” from the Water Resources Control Board “and hopefully funds will be made available to upgrade our wastewater treatment system in the future.”

If no grant funds are forthcoming, it may take up to three years to fix the problem using district funds instead, he said.

So far, Motzkus said he hasn’t heard back from Central Valley RWQCB regarding implementing the fine or waiving it altogether.

Fire chief report

Chester Fire Capt. Chris Dean stepped in to read the fire chief’s report , noting that the OES water tender has been out since Oct. 9, providing fire-fighting units with an additional water source to help fight the numerous fires raging in the state.

Water tender drivers/operators Tony Balbiani and Matt Maumoynier have been assigned to Butte and Placer counties on several different fires, working their way down to Santa Rosa, he said.

“Most of the fires currently burning in California are state fires,” Dean noted, “so our Lassen employees have been waiting for assignments on federal land,” before they could head out into the field, adding that the Chester Fire Department did manage to get three incident management teams out to the state fires, with an additional five teams currently assigned to Puerto Rico.

Said Dean, “We have added one volunteer firefighter, Wesley Hedrick, to our organization with an additional applicant that we hope to bring on board within a month after a background check.”

Turndown grant letter

“We have officially received our turndown letter from FEMA for both the Assistance to Firefighters Grant and Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response Grant,” Dean revealed.

Collins Companies Foundation grant

Given that FEMA denied the fire station’s two grant requests, Dean underscored how important the $55,000 Collins Companies Foundation grant was for the department, providing for the purchase of 46 new SCBA (Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus) bottles used in structure fires, and retiring the 15-year-old bottles that had expired or were close to expiring.

In addition, he said the grant paid for 10 sets of brand new, fully compliant structural turnouts, outfitting every paid staff and volunteer firefighter in the department, with an additional two sets purchased, one by the Chester Volunteer Firefighters Association and one by the department.

As an aside, Dean concluded his time by thanking Waterman and Motzkus for their hard work in the union negotiations, which Dean said went well.

Hearing on water rate increase

Next on the agenda was a discussion and possible action relating to the CPUD board’s plan to raise water rates by 66.25 percent for district water users, which has not seen a rate change since 2002.

Chairman Wes Scott opened discussion on the matter with about a dozen community members in attendance, waiting patiently during the meeting to ask questions about the hike in water rates and express their concerns.

Motzkus began the discussion by stating that water rates in the Chester district would remain the lowest compared to most other districts, even with a proposed rate increase.

“It’s been 15 years since we’ve had an increase,” he said, relying instead on monies from other departments to make the budget work. “But now it’s time to have the water side of the budget stand alone and not require taking funds elsewhere to make ends meet. That’s why the board is recommending this hike,” for both residential and commercial water users.

Scott, who said he’s only been a member of the board for three years, admitted that the district should have been tracking its water expenses over the past decade and a half, making increases incrementally over time, but added that once an analysis was done “it became apparent that a hike in water rates was long over due.”

A Chester resident told the board that he understood the need to raise the rates after a lull of 15 years, but that increases should have been made over a longer period of time.

He was also concerned about the additional increase of up to 3 percent every year based on the CPI index (inflation rate) on top of the proposed 66.25 percent the board was recommending. He suggested that the automatic increase be made every three to five years instead, and at just 5 percent.

He added that the jump in rates would be especially burdensome for the majority of residents with fixed incomes like retirees and the elderly receiving Social Security or disability benefits, as well as for low wage earners.

People needed more time to find ways to supplement their income, he said, before they could afford such a hefty increase for water.

Other speakers echoed the same sentiments over the dramatic rate hike, anxious about falling behind, with one person suggesting other means to find funding, such as federal or state grants.

But Scott said no such grants were available to the district to fund water services.

Another attendee didn’t understand why rates needed to be higher in the first place, with the water table at the same level and easily accessible.

Scott explained that maintenance costs, new equipment, added regulations, the cost of electricity needed to deliver water, compensation, repairs and other factors were all reasons behind the need for an increase.

Not only did low-income residents share their concerns with the board, one of the attendees who owned multiple rental units expected to pay thousands more in water costs per year if the proposal was approved.

Scott noted that the district’s general fund account (500 account) is funded through an administrative fee charge to the USFS to fund the fire department for services rendered during fire season, but has also been used to prop up the water side of the district for years.

“That’s not fair to the guys out fighting the fires to also pay for the needs of the water department,” he asserted. “We as a community should be paying for the full cost of delivering water without using money that’s supposed to be available for fire and emergency services.”

Scott concluded the meeting by saying it was regrettable that a large increase in water rates was necessary, but that he nevertheless appreciated the input from attendees.

Customers can choose a “protest vote” by mailing back or hand delivering to the district a written protest no later than Nov. 13, if they are opposed to any rate increases.

Written protests will be accepted at the CPUD office, located at 251 Chester Airport Rd., next to the Rogers Field Airport, or by mailing them to Chester PUD, P. O. Box 503, Chester, CA. 96020, until 2 p.m. on or before Nov. 13.

To be considered valid the protest vote must meet certain criteria, including a statement to your opposition clearly stated, a parcel APN number, and an original signature.

If the final protest vote achieves 50 percent of water payers plus one, the rate increase will be blocked, and the water service monthly rate cannot be put into effect.

Motzkus said the cost of providing water to Chester residents has increased since water service rates were last adjusted, and a hike in water rates will allow CPUD to continue to provide the high level of service customers have come to expect, plus establish a reserve fund for replacing water lines and equipment in the future.

A special meeting will be held on Tuesday, Nov. 21 at 3 p.m. at the CPUD conference room once all the votes by water payers have been tallied. The board will discuss the results, open a public hearing, and potentially adopt the resolution, whereupon the new rates go into effect Dec. 1.