Agency fee assessments shaped by new law
January 3, 2009
By DANIEL BLACKBURN
A new state law rigidly defining a public agencies’ ability to blithely pass along inflationary costs to residents is now in place, and its impact on San Luis Obispo County may be swift.
The law, signed by the governor in late September, took effect January 1. It clarifies provisions of the California Constitution regarding assessment of fees charged by local agencies providing water, sewer, or refuse collection, and trims government’s ability to increase fees.
First in line to deal with conditions of AB3030 (Brownley) are Paso Robles officials, now planning a January 20 public hearing to establish new – and three times higher – water rates to finance the city’s share of the Nacimiento Pipeline.
The rates have been the subject of considerable contention among residents who have managed to stifle several previous attempts by city officials to create revenue for participation in the Nacimiento Pipeline project.
An attorney for a North County group, Concerned Citizens for Paso Robles (CCPR), told city officials that the new law “affects the legality of [the city’s] proposed schedule for water rate increases.”
Attorney Cynthia Hawley wrote in a December 10 letter to Paso Robles officials that their “proposed nine-year schedule of water rate increases which include automatic adjustments for inflation is [now] prohibited. Adoption of the currently proposed rate schedule at the January meeting “would be a violation of this new legislation.”
State law outlines procedures for notice, protest, and public hearings by agencies prior to levying new or increased fees or charges. The law now requires compliance with certain conditions in order to adjust fees for inflation, or to add increases for additional wholesale water costs.
Additionally, the refined law now limits to five years an agency’s authority to adopt scheduled inflationary increases.
“Since any of the city’s proposed rate increases will not take place until after [the law has taken effect] adoption of such … increases now falls within the purview of this legislation and its mandates,” Hawley wrote. Because of this circumstance, the attorney suggested, city officials must now “restructure the new water rate increases and resubmit the new rate to property owners and rate payers” with new notices, hearings, and opportunity for public protest.
“That’s only one interpretation of the law,” said Paso Robles City Councilman Fred Strong. Strong said he worried about the consequences of developing a long-term water resources plan based on objections of “a citizen with a little knowledge but without the big picture.”
Strong was referring to John Borst, an officer in CCPR, who has asked for an opinion on the new law’s application from the city attorney’s office.
“You can’t help people who want to commit suicide,” said Strong of residents who oppose the water project. He declined further comment, saying, “This is probably headed for litigation.”
Borst and his group contend that current water users are being required to pick up the capital costs of providing water for future developments, rather than placing the financial onus on developers in the form of construction fees.
Also at issue is the overdraft of existing water tables by large corporate wineries and other agricultural entities. Eastside ranchers complain that deeper wells dug by those with deep pockets are creating havoc with their traditional water supplies.