Calexico property owners are in the midst of making a decision on water and sewer rate increases city officials have said are needed to complete vital system upgrades.
While the process is a type of election, it is much different than the Nov. 6 balloting in which Calexico voters were asked to levy taxes on cannabis businesses and hotel guests.
The guidelines are spelled out in a law implemented under Proposition 218, a 1996 statewide voter-approved initiative that set rules on the process California municipalities must follow to increase some taxes and fees. As such, the process is often called a “218” vote.
First, only property owners may vote. The city mailed them notices on Oct. 12, City Manager David Dale stated in an e-mail to this newspaper.
“The city followed up and again included the notice a second time for informational purposes in the regular water bills, sent out on October 18-19, 2018,” Dale stated.
At the close of a voting period that cannot be less than 45 days, the municipality must hold a public hearing at which comments are heard and the votes are tabulated. Calexico has scheduled the hearing for 6:30 p.m., Nov. 28 in the city hall council chambers at 608 Heber Ave.
Besides only property owners being allowed to vote, there is another significant difference from standard elections: to vote “no” the property owner must file a written “protest.” It may either be mailed or delivered to city hall prior to the public hearing or delivered to city officials at the hearing before its conclusion.
The city notice states there is a process for a property owner that owns more than one parcel to log a protest vote for each parcel.
“Only one protest will be counted per identified parcel,” the city notice states. “Should there be property owners who own multiple properties and wish to submit a protest letter, they may list those properties with the respective parcel number on one letter and each parcel will be counted provided there were no other letters received for that parcel.”
Owners who do not respond will be counted as yes votes.
The votes will be tallied at the end of the public hearing. The measure will pass unless the number of protest votes exceeds half the number of parcels. If it fails rates will remain unchanged.
It is the second time this year the city has gone through the so-called “218” process. In the first effort the proposed water and sewer rate increases passed with only about 400 protest votes logged out of about 8,500 parcels with votes.
Ballots were sent in April but a public uproar in which property owners complained the rates were too high caused the matter to linger into July with three public hearings being held.
Despite the passage of the rate proposal through the vote, the council finally scuttled the increases at the final hearing on July 5.
The city then held meetings with property owners and received further advice from a second financial consultant. The original rate increases were based on a rate study done by an initial consultant.
The result was the city heeding the advice of the second consultant and deciding to fund upgrades with a mix of savings from refinancing bonds used to fund prior water-system improvements, drawing on city cash reserves and smaller annual rate increases.
The text of the latest ballot states, "This notice describes proposed rate changes to be implemented to recover cost of providing water and sewer service to city customers...It is important for the city to keep pace with increasing operating costs: maintaining, repairing and replacing infrastructure.”
The text also states, “The proposed rates ensure sufficient revenue is collected to cover fixed expenses, capital improvements and build up cash reserves to fund repair and replacement of water and sewer systems to address aging system components."
Calexico resident Ben Horton noted this action has been a long time coming.
"One day we'll wake up and go to turn on the water or flush the toilet and nothing will happen," he said. "We'll be in an emergency situation and then the county or state could take over the services and if they do it'll be more expensive than now. So we need to do something."
Horton is also a member of the city Economic Development/Financial Advisory Commission, some of whose members joined with the city council and property owners in the meetings to seek a compromise after the initial rate-increase failure.
Water costs are proposed to remain at current rates until Jan. 1, 2019, when the new rate system would be implemented. The base rate would then go up two percent per year for four fiscal years through fiscal through 2022-23. City fiscal years run July 1 to the following June 30.
In June residents packed city council meetings to loudly protest the original proposal of an initial five-percent increase and 4.5-percent increases through June 2023.
Currently, water users pay $43.89 for up to 30 units (3,000 cubic feet) and pay that amount whether they use 30 units or one.
Under the new structure users would pay a $17.24 base rate, then a volume rate of $1.99 for each unit (100 cubic feet) of water consumed each month. The base rate would increase to $18.66 by 2022-23.
Residents 13 units of water under the new rate schedule would pay about the same ($43.11) as those using up to 30 units now. City officials explained those who use more water would pay more.
Residential sewer rates are now $38.08 and would rise to $41.67 on Jan. 1, 2019, and to $44.23 by fiscal 2022-23.
"The new proposal is far better than the one last June," said Leo Rodriguez, a small-property owner with two units he rents out and a third residential one for a total of three units. "The rate sounds good but they cut the quantity down from 30 units to 12.5. It sounds good until you realize you get less water for the same rate. The 12.5 units is perfect for one person. But for a married couple with two kids, it's not enough."
A meeting between an Economic Development/Financial Advisory Commission representative, residents, Mayor Lewis Pacheco and Assistant City Manager Miguel Figueroa was held at City Hall offices on Oct. 30, Rodriguez reported to this newspaper the following day.
"They insisted it was a good deal but it wasn't," said Rodriguez. "Every time we meet they change their story and figures.”
He added, "I've got to pay $34.48 (base rate for 2 rental units) before I even a use a drop of water. From there it's $1.99 per unit of water. My tenants use an average of 25.1 units of water. For September my bill was $261.22 for water, sewer and trash."
The city officials’ explanation as why the latest figures are even more than previously stated is that the state of California will mandate water conservation at the beginning of next year, Rodriguez recalled.
"We asked for paperwork but it's been all verbal," said Rodriguez. "At this point we still don't know how much our bills will go up. The city numbers don't jive. They're just using figures for their own purpose."
Another such meeting was scheduled for Nov. 13 at 5:30 p.m. at city hall, Rodriguez added.