Paso water rate boost appears headed to voters

March 4, 2009
Meg Willamson of the city of Paso Robles accepts box of water rate petitions from John Borst, right, of water fee opponent CCPR.

Meg Willamson of the city of Paso Robles accepts box of water rate petitions from John Borst, right, of water fee opponent CCPR.


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.

Greg Rachunok, left, and John Borst of citizens' group CCPR present water fee petitions to Meg Williamson, center, of city of Paso Robles.

Greg Rachunok, left, and John Borst of citizens' group CCPR present water fee petitions to Meg Williamson, center, of city of Paso Robles.

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.

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Member Opinions:

By: pasoowner on 3/17/09

It's not bullying to say if you don't like it you can leave. If I had said do it my way or I am going to cause as many problems as I can for you….that's bullying. The difference is uncompromising, thoughtless pursuit. The other is a right in this country, you have the right to live where you want….exercise it. I do. I live in Paso. By design. Because of it's strengths. I am willing to pay a little more, I am willing to suck it up. Now is not the time for divisive rhetoric, grandstanding and the rest of the party line this group has.

By: Riley on 3/9/09

"if you think it's so bad… can leave." Is this not bullying?

The new word "transparency" applies all around, whether it's local government or groups mounting petitions. When the city supports an event, let us know the real cost in dollars and the real revenue taken in by our local businesses. I can take inconvenience if it benefits our downtown businesses.

More involvement and awareness is necessary from all citizens of PR, I will be attending more public meetings in 2009.

By: Paso_Guy on 3/4/09

I have a reoccuring nightmare where Paso ends up as "Los Osos North", that we end up in court for the next 20 years at great expense to those who pay the water bill.

One of the petition workers visited me at my home and when asked how we were to pay for the water that Paso had contracted and agreed to finace, his answer was "bonds".

Bonds are not a guaranteed event in Paso, ask the school board

By: pasoowner on 3/4/09

It's too bad so many people are influenced by this CCPR. I am a citizen concerned about the concerned citizens. What do these people really want?

Do we need to take care of our future water needs right now? Yes.

Have the leaders of Paso Robles done a good job of managing, supporting and directing the city? Yes. I love it here and if you think it's so bad……you can leave.

Who is going to win in the lawsuit they are pursuing? The lawyers, that's it. It won't help me if they "win".

Was the Tour of California significant? It put a national spotlight on Paso Robles on what would have been a routine/boring afternoon in February. Read the Sports Illustrated article about Lance Armstrong, page 29.

Bottom line, we live here together. This bullying, self righteous pursuit is old.

Instead of running the city ragged, why not really contribute. There are many ways all this effort could actually benefit the people who live in Paso.

By: FuriousCitizen on 3/4/09

Yes, administrative salaries for sure. I understand the City Librarian makes over $100,000 a year. Ouch! Anyone know what the other executives make? I suggest we have no more bicycle events for a while — a $100,000 a pop at tax payer/City expense I understand.

Nice to see someone in our community, Borst, is doing something for the people and voting rights in our community. It's long past due!

By: Riley on 3/4/09

Everyone is cutting back, I suggest the City, Police and Fire take serious look at company cars and administrator's salaries.