Rather than merely oppose a proposed sewer rate increase, residents in Big Pine have drafted an alternative plan that they say will be easier on the pocketbook during these tough economic times.
The group of long-time residents and community advocates said the rate increase proposed by the Big Pine Community Services District is both “excessive” and “oppressive.” Tom Phifer used those two words over and over again when talking about the proposed increase during an interview at the home of fellow opponent Bob Steele.
They said they agree an increase is needed to repair the sewer treatment facility, but the proposal is too much to bear for many who are on fixed incomes or unemployed.
The Big Pine Community Services District is proposing to raise residential rates from $15 to $30 a month plus charge an additional $10 a month for facility upgrades and maintenance. There are 348 residential units in the district.
Phifer said that for property owners who already live on a fixed-income, a rate increase would eat up the Social Security cost-of-living-allowance set for next year, the first in three years.
Phifer and Steele both said that they want to inform the public about the pair’s alternative plan before the district’s public hearing and chance to protest the proposal on Thursday, Nov. 17. Their alternative includes a 33 percent increase in rates to $20 a month and a $5-a-month fee for five years for maintenance and construction.
The two also said they are not laying blame on anyone for what they are calling a lack of communication, a “disconnect” between the board and the district owners. They said they do want the other property owners, all of whom own a piece of the district, to be informed before accepting the proposed increases.
“We want everyone to be included,” Phifer said. He added that a letter in the mail was the first the community had heard about the increase. Dennis Tillemans, treatment plant operator, said the proposal is just that – a proposal – and “not set in concrete.”
Gary Doyle, district board member, said he encourages everyone in the community to attend the hearing for educational purposes and, for property owners, as part owners of the district.
The rate increase was based on an analysis by consultant R. O. Anderson Engineering of Minden, Nev., Tillemans said. Phifer said the consultants must not have taken the community into account. “They’re not economists,” Phifer said of the firm.
Tillemans said R.O. Anderson estimated needed repairs to the facility at approximately $400,000, which would include infrastructure repairs to the facility such as concrete work and equipment repair.
The district has an Accumulated Capital Outlay account, a savings account, to pay for repairs but Tillemans explained the facility expenses of the past several years have outweighed revenues and the savings account is being drained quickly.
The facility is in need of a clarifier that separates harmful bacteria before the waste goes into the oxygen ponds, both Phifer and Tillemans said. It is this clarifier that has forced Lahontan Regional Quality Control Board to issue a Notice of Violation to the district.
The clarifier is a “labor intensive” piece of equipment that was taken off-line at the facility years ago, Tillemans said, due to costly repairs. He said that without the clarifier the facility still passed Lahontan inspections, up until a few years ago. Now the clarifier needs to be repaired to satisfy Lahontan requirements. If the facility is not up to standards, Lahontan will move forward with fines and litigation against the district.
Tillemans said Lahontan has not set a timeline for the district to finish repairs, and is allowing the district some leeway now that rate increases are actively being pursued. Tillemans added that Lahontan also understands that the process of increasing rates can be time consuming. This is especially true given the state’s Proposition 218, which allows voters to reject or protest rate increases.
Phifer said he does not dispute the need for a rate increase, but will protest the proposed amount.
Phifer explained that his alternative would allow for the clarifier repairs, first and foremost, to satisfy Lahontan. Next, he said, would be gradual and stepped construction upgrades; these would not be done all at once, so as to relieve some of the financial burden on home owners.
And, Steele and Phifer are familiar with the community and how to get change done. Steele explained that he was instrumental in seeing that the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power was held to keeping its word in the Long-Term Water Agreement. He said he spent decades in court and another seven years of weekends helping to construct the Big Pine Ditch System along with other volunteers including Phifer. The ditch now delivers approximately three million gallons of water a day to the community.
Phifer said he hopes to have fliers printed with the alternative proposal ready for distribution by the first of next week as well as posted on community bulletin boards at the library and Carroll’s Market.
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.