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Rohnert Park under pressure to raise sewer rates

By JEREMY HAY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Rohnert Park, its finances now buoyed by the passage of a half-cent sales tax, is headed for a fiscal disaster unless it raises its sewer rates and it’s under pressure from its creditors to do so, city officials said.

The pronouncement virtually guarantees city leaders a battle with residents who in 2008 won a campaign to roll back the city’s rates to earlier levels.

“We put it to the vote of the people and the people overwhelmingly voted what they were in favor of, the city can’t just change that at their own whim,” said Larry Resnick, a signer of the ballot argument for Measure L, which cut rates back to 2006 levels.

Average household sewer rates in the city are now about $45 a month, the second lowest among the county’s nine cities.

City leaders said they must act quickly to raise those rates because the rollback cut revenues by so much — $3.4 million a year — that the city now is spending $10,000 a day from its sewer reserve fund to make up the difference.

By next year, the fund will be exhausted and the city will have to tap into its already stretched general fund, said John Dunn, the interim city manager.

The situation is “very dangerous and unsustainable,” Dunn told the City Council in a special briefing on the issue.

Councilman Jake Mackenzie said the gains the city realized from the sales tax voters approved in June will be reversed unless changes are made soon.

“Clearly by next year, without getting the rates to their proper level … we’re going to undo in one fell swoop all the good that Measure E ever accomplished,” Mackenzie said. Measure E approved the half-cent sales tax increase.

City sewer rates had been raised three times between 2006 and the 2008 election in which Measure L passed by a vote of 53 percent to 47 percent.

City officials said the increases were to expand the system’s capacity, to pay for the city’s share of the Santa Rosa subregional wastewater treatment system, and to pay off $13 million in bonds issued to replace aging pipes.

Now, as the bottom of the reserve fund comes into clear sight, the holders of those bonds are growing nervous and “asking for corrective measures, that is, substantial rate increases,” Dunn said.

Measure L supporters contended the city’s rate increases were being used to expand the system to benefit new development. They promise to fight any new effort to raise them again unless it is on the ballot for residents to decide.

“If they try to raise rates without taking it to the voters, we’ll go to court,” said John Hudson, an attorney and another Measure L campaign leader.

Resnick said if the city exercised more fiscal discipline it wouldn’t be facing the problem with the sewer fund.

“They’re spending money they don’t have,” he said. “If they got their budget under control, they wouldn’t have to keep coming back to ask for money.”

He shrugged aside the city’s argument that it is spending more than it is taking in precisely because rates were rolled back.

“They can make the books look like they have plenty of money or they don’t have enough, and they make it look like they don’t have enough,” he said.

The council’s water and wastewater subcommittee takes up the issue Monday at 4:30 p.m. in council chambers.

“It’s a dire, dire situation, we need to move on it,” said Vice-Mayor Gina Belforte, a member of the subcommittee.

In Petaluma this November, residents will be asked to vote on a ballot measure modeled largely after Rohnert Park’s Measure L and which seeks to roll back rates to 2006 levels.





8 Responses to “Rohnert Park under pressure to raise sewer rates”

  1. Kay Tokerud says:

    Great comments, RP citizen, the flurry of rate increases to significantly expand the sewer capacity was to accommodate large projects like Sonoma Mountain Village. I’m sure city officials knew well in advance that this project and maybe others were in the box and coming forward. Ratepayers starting paying via rate increases a few years ago in preparation.

    In Santa Rosa, pretty much the same thing happened to us. We had 9% rate increases 6 years in a row. Then a couple weeks ago, they told us that they are just finishing a $40 million building to house the workers for the utilities department. The City never mentioned that when the rate increases came before council. I know, because I attended the hearings. The cities jack up rates to build unnecessary fancy buildings and to expand their facilities at the ratepayers expense.

    The Sonoma Mountain Village project is a redevelopment project. It is common for developers in these areas to be given free infrastructure improvements by the city’s redevelopment agency. This project will be heavily subsidized by both the taxpayers and the ratepayers.

    Why would a developer build 1,900 housing units in this horrendous housing market? They wouldn’t unless the subsidies were very substantial. Do you want to pay for this?

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  2. zuma says:

    “The city used the money from the increases to pay off the bonds….:”
    now those same paid off bondholders are demanding reserves be increased? If the bonds are paid off why are they demanding anything.
    Ask the city how much it cut its salaries and bennies! Or did they like Cotati not cut salaries etc and just spend the new tax increase as usual?

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  3. RP citizen says:

    “Rohnert Park, its finances now buoyed by the passage of a half-cent sales tax, is headed for a fiscal disaster unless it raises its sewer rates and it’s under pressure from its creditors to do so, city officials said.”

    How can this be? Sewer and water funds can only be used for sewer and water projects. There is already a very high ‘general fund’ allotment within the sewer budget. Take a look at that.

    The spending choices is where we have a problem. Spend more money on consultants?

    Where will the sewer go from the 10% population growth planned in Sonoma Mountain Village? Interesting that there would be a rate increase at the same time as this development…

    Ask questions, people!

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  4. Vikki says:

    How about putting meters on what goes down the sewer. I know not all the water we are charged for goes down the sewer. Our sewer rate is based on ALL the water we use.The City can’t control their spending so we the people suffer. Not everyone can afford a penny here and a penny their ,all these pennies add up when you are on a fixed income. Has any one noticed the repaving jobs that were done not long ago and what a poor job? Half of the paving is gone and WE paid for this poor job? Did we really need a new City Hall,a Water Park that can’t be used next to the library? What about the exorbitant fee they are paying a Financial Consultant. This City is wasting our hard earned money. Could this council be like Bell,CA? Maybe our council should cut their pay because I don’t think they are earning what they are paid. Stop this out of control spending.

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  5. Anonymous says:

    If you make the Developer pay for it, one they won’t develop here, and/or two they will pass the cost on to the home buyer. Everyone should pay their fair share. Not just new development.

    This is a no-brainer common sense issue that needs to be fixed. I laugh when people shrug off the realities of the financial distress this city and rationalize it by saying the books are being doctored. Do you really think they are fudging the books and getting away with it? Come on.

    Measure L was an irresponsible measure put before the voters. I don’t WANT to pay higher rates, but the NEED to be raised.

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  6. Lyn says:

    Does anyone know what the sewer impact fees will be for this development? Too often they are inadequate to fund the plant expansion a development of this size will make inevitable.

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  7. bw says:

    So the guy that is getting paid $18k per month wants to raise our sewer rates. Unbelievable. Mr. Dunn if you are going to be a city manager than you need to start cutting some of the fat meaning salaries that take up more than 70% of the budget. The people are sick of the city’s hand always being out. The city cried poor until the tax measure passed. Enough is enough.

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  8. Kay Tokerud says:

    Sonoma Mountain Village needs to pay their share of the sewer expansion project. Nineteen hundred additional Rohnert Park homes are being added to the sewer by their project. The reason voters rolled back the rates was because the sewer expansion was primarily to the benefit of new development. Existing ratepayers shouldn’t have to pay for that. Additionally, documents surfaced in which the district was expecting to make a 2 million dollar profit. Trouble is, that’s not legal.

    So don’t let them raise it. Force them to charge the developers for the money owed on the new facility. Don’t let their spin convince you to pay more. This Sonoma Mountain ‘One planet community’ wants to tie into your city’s services at your expense. What planet are they from?

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