Paso water rate boost appears headed to voters
March 4, 2009
By DANIEL BLACKBURN
Paso Robles city officials’ hopes for carefree financing of future water supplies may have gone down the drain Tuesday, and proponents of an elevated water tax now face a precarious ballot challenge.
Representatives of a citizens group presented Assistant City Manager Meg Williamson with a box containing what they said were the signatures of more than 2,100 Paso Robles registered voters. The petitioners are asking Paso Robles City Council members to rescind their January action in which they approved higher water fees for property owners. If that doesn’t happen, members of Concerned Citizens for Paso Robles (CCPR) want voters to have final say over the future of the drastically increasing water costs.
The resident group calls the water rate increase “unfair, unaffordable, and unjust.”
Petitions seeking a referendum on the council’s decision were placed in numerous downtown businesses. If at least 1,500 of the signatures can be validated, said John Borst, a representative of the group, the question of a proposed tax hike for water development will either be placed on a ballot after 88 days, or made the subject of a special election.
City officials must verify signature numbers within 30 days.
CCPR members have been spearheading a growing wave of opposition to the city’s water plans, which include a three-fold boost in water rates. Borst, Tom Rusch, and other members of CCPR argue that the raise, approved by the Paso Robles City Council 5-0 in January, is an “assessment” to property owners by definition, and thus must be put to voters for ratification. They contend the council’s action is a violation of Prop. 218, approved by voters in 1999 and refined in subsequent court actions.
An “assessment,” according to wording of Prop. 218, “means any levy or charge by an agency upon real property that is based upon the special benefit conferred upon the real property by a public improvement or service, that is imposed to pay the capital cost of the public improvement, the maintenance and operation expenses of the public improvement, or the cost of the service provided.” And if no special benefit can be provided for rate payers, according to a recent California Supreme Count decision (Silicon Valley Taxpayers Assoc. v. Santa Clara County Open Space Authority, 2008), the levy or charge to be imposed by government requires voter approval as a “special tax.”
“The provisions of Prop. 218 are very applicable here. It requires voter approval of many methods of public revenue raising,” said CCPR’s Rusch on a KPRL radio talk show.
The law “does not allow local officials to change fees to meet revenue needs. It shifts most of the power of taxation from local governing elected boards – such as a city council – to residents and property owners,” Rusch said. “The purpose is to ensure that property assessments are approved by voters.”
Borst said city officials “first thought cost was the issue. They thought they were just charging too much. They may believe they have given their best offer. But cost is not the only issue. The way they are going about it is unlawful, and until that issue is resolved, the voters of this community will not be satisfied.”
City and county voter officials will count and verify petition signatures.
In a related matter, a lawsuit filed by CCPR against Paso Robles city officials is proceeding. It seeks to recover revenues paid by residents for prior increases in water costs which CCPR contends were collected illegally.