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Sewer rate hike proposed for Big Pine

November 3, 2011

Residents of Big Pine are facing a significant sewer rate increase, with some fees set to double, but do have the right to protest the planned hike and possibly halt the rate increase altogether.
The 300 or so property owners affected will have the chance to hear more on the Big Pine Community Services District’s proposal, and protest it if they feel such a move is necessary, on Nov. 17.
The Big Pine Community Services District is proposing a rate increase in response to notice from the Lahontan Regional Quality Control Board that the town’s sewer system is not up to certain codes. Costly equipment and facility upgrades will be needed to bring the system back within state standards.
Under the district’s proposal, household rates will double from $15 to $30 and commercial businesses will see their first rate increase since 1978, from $.90 to $3 per billing unit. There will also be an additional monthly charge of $10 that will continue for five years for facility maintenance and repair.
Denis Tillemans, treatment plant operator, said the extra 10 bucks a month will go toward much needed repairs to the 40-year-old sewer treatment facility. He said the facility needs concrete work and upgrades to equipment. According to a study by R. O. Anderson Engineering of Minden, Nev., the upgrades will cost approximately $400,000.
As with most water and sewer districts, part of the rate goes toward a surplus account meant for maintenance, Tillemans explained. He said the district has been using that money for maintenance and other bills and the district had plans on raising rates this year. The commercial rates have not gone up in 34 years. Tillemans explained that the previous boards had left the rate low to “encourage commerce” and help businesses, but the financial impact to the 18 businesses was not that big of an impact.
Then the district got hit with a warning from the local water control board.
The Big Pine Community Services District received a Notice of Violation from the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board as the sewer system does not meet certain discharge requirements. The district serves the town proper, not the Big Pine Reservation or the community of Night Manor.
Tillemans said that if the district does not make improvements to the aging facility to meet Lahontan standards, the next step will be a cease and desist order from Lahontan.
If matters still aren’t straightened out, Lahontan will fine the district $5,000 a day until the system is up to standards, or as Tillemans said, the district runs out of money. Tillemans said at that rate, it wouldn’t take long for Lahontan to dry up the district’s bank account.
Lahontan’s next move would be to hand the district over to an administrative law judge. Tillemans said that an ALJ will set rates that will re-set systems into accordance with set standards. With more than 30 years on the job, Tillemans added that experience has taught him ALJs do not usually take consumer income into account when setting rates. He notes that ALJs are required to review systems and rates periodically, which means these judges, most of whom have full and busy schedules, will set rates so high they won’t have to revisit the matter for quite some time.
Tillemans said he can understand that in these tough economic times and following the devastating Center Fire, the public will not look favorably upon a rate increase. But, he said, the rate increase beats the alternative of having an ALJ set prices – and is much more reasonable than anything from a judge.
And of course residents can protest the rate increase per Proposition 218. According to the Legislative Analyst’s Office, Prop. 218, passed by voters in 1996, “ensure(s) that all taxes and most charges on property owners are subject to voter approval.” This means that voters, or in the case of water and/or sewer rates, the property owners, can protest, via written letter, the rate increase. If there is a majority, or 50 percent plus one, against the proposal, the rate increase will not stand.
Tillemans described a water increase proposal meeting of five years ago. At that meeting, he said there were many home owners who showed up to the meeting and handed in protest letters before the discussion even started. He said by the end of the meeting, most of the protest letters – about 90 percent – were reneged, Tillemans recalled, leaving only 40 protests from approximately 300 homeowners.
Tillemans said this time he is asking that people hold onto their protest letters until the meeting is over on Nov. 17.
The public hearing will begin at 6 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 17 at the Big Pine Town Hall on Dewey Street. For more information, call the district at (760) 938-2660.
Written protests can be submitted prior to the meeting to the Big Pine Community Services District, c/o Clerk, P.O. Box 639, Big Pine, CA 93513. To be valid, protests must include the water service address of property and the printed name, address and signature of the person(s) filing the protests.

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