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Petaluma sued over uses of sewer funds

By LORI A. CARTER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

A former city councilman and longtime critic of Petaluma government is suing the city over what he claims is the misappropriation of millions of dollars in sewage treatment fees.

Bryant Moynihan

Bryant Moynihan long has challenged how the city uses the money it collects from water and wastewater ratepayers, claiming it has been used to cover mismanagement of the city budget and to augment overspending in the general fund.

In a lawsuit filed this month in Sonoma County Superior Court, Moynihan alleges the city has wrongfully spent at least $4.7 million from the wastewater fund since 2004.

He is demanding the city stop such spending, repay the general fund and pay his attorney’s fees.

The city hasn’t filed a response to the suit. A case management hearing is set for May 3.

At issue is whether certain functions that may be indirectly or partially related to wastewater management can be funded with the fees. Moynihan says no.

For several years Petaluma and other cities have included storm-drain maintenance, for example, as a function that relates to wastewater management and is therefore payable with ratepayers’ fees. The city’s theory is that diverting storm water from the wastewater system is a benefit to the wastewater fund because diverted rainwater doesn’t have to be treated at the city’s sewer plant.

“It’s an indirect if not a direct benefit,” City Manager John Brown said.

Similar charges total between $600,000 and $900,000 a year, Brown said, and are noted in the city’s budget. A recent audit of the water and wastewater fund supported the accounting.

But the city has recently acknowledged that Moynihan is at least partially correct.

Proposition 218, an initiative adopted by California voters in 1996, established rules for raising fees and taxes in the state.

“City management and our city council have been violating the state Constitution, state government code, the city charter and their oath of office by essentially transferring the ratepayer’s enterprise funds into the city’s general fund, creating an illegal utility tax,” Moynihan said.

He objects to wastewater fees funding salaries, supplies, landscaping, vehicles, computers and other items used in part to manage the fund.

Brown partially agreed with Moynihan’s argument. A court ruling on the issue holds that if the benefit isn’t directly tied to the fund, fees or taxes to pay for it must be affirmatively approved by voters.

“Ultimately, the lawyers agreed there was a technicality,” he said.

In response to that, Brown said the city has removed $872,000 this year from the wastewater fund.

It’s unclear whether that burden will be borne by the general fund — the same pot of money that funds most city services and salaries — or other budgets.

The council is set to discuss the lawsuit in closed session next month.

Moynihan said he has spent years “asking them nicely” to change their accounting practices.

“It is with deep regret I realize a lawsuit is the only manner left to protect the citizens of Petaluma from unwarranted and unapproved taxation,” he said.

Bryant Moynihan served on the council from 2001 to 2004. He previously forced two water and sewer rate reduction initiatives, both of which voters rejected.

Staff Writer Lori A. Carter can be reached at 762-7297 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com.





9 Responses to “Petaluma sued over uses of sewer funds”

  1. Paying Attention says:

    ‘Stop Moynihan’is probably someone from the city council or one of their buddies.

    Good for Moynihan – he is looking out for the citizens! If you don’t challenge and take a peek at the budgets once in a while, they will do what they please with our money. And it ain’t in our best interest.

    When RP residents rose up and made the same challenge, some of them were threatened with a suit from the city (for wording on the ballet)!

    Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  2. RICHARD says:

    Santa Rosa City has done the same: spent sewer and water funds for things other than sewer and water.

    By law, city charter, and CA Constitution sewer and water funds may only be used for sewer and water.

    Thumb up 11 Thumb down 0

  3. Social Dis-Ease says:

    Bryant is doing the right thing.

    Thumb up 10 Thumb down 1

  4. Kim says:

    Just what is wrong with following the laws that are on the books? Seems to me that’s all Moynihan’s point is! If city officials were following the laws, there would be no need for a lawsuit.

    Its perfectly OK for special interest groups to influence the city council over the Dutra project to the tune of $73,000.00 (so far) but Moynihan gets condemned for suing to hold the city accountable for misspending public money? Its very evident that the patients have taken over the asylum.

    Thumb up 17 Thumb down 1

  5. Money Grubber says:

    Narcistic:

    Way too much watching of cartoon characters. Pathetic that you would even think that such a post was worth the effort.

    Bryant Moynihan is doing the community a big favor while children like Narcistic sit on the couch doing nothing.

    Thumb up 16 Thumb down 7

  6. narcistic says:

    A real caped crusader.

    Thumb up 10 Thumb down 18

  7. Money Grubber says:

    And the dirty bureaucrats rush to their various online posting boards to attack the mere peon who dares to challenge their criminal government methods.

    Afraid of what might get exposed in open court, gentlemen ?

    Nothing like an open court discussion to keep the dirty bureuacrats from spewing their LIES and covering their misconduct with our tax money.

    Lets not forget that the City of Sacramento LOST a similar lawsuit recently.

    Thumb up 26 Thumb down 8

  8. Sam Kendricks says:

    It is with deep regret I realize a lawsuit is the only manner left to see my name in the paper and shore up my inadequate self esteem by forcing the whole city to deal with my ridiculous and obstructive and costly litigation”

    Thumb up 11 Thumb down 26

  9. Stop Moynihan says:

    “It is with deep regret I realize a lawsuit is the only manner left to protect the citizens of Petaluma from unwarranted and unapproved taxation,” he said.

    But what can we do to protect the tax payers from Bryant Moynihan! Let’s see. So far, he’s cost us all on failed ballot measures designed to bankrupt the city (Measures K & U), wasted countless hours of City staff and legal time chasing absurd complaints that go nowhere legally, and now this?

    Please stop the madness Bryant. This is the last thing our City needs and it’s obvious that you really don’t care about the rest of us who are tired of paying more for services and debt payment because YOU keep costing the city money with frivolity that feeds your ego while starving Petaluma.

    Enough is enough. Please go away and take your Tea Party politics with you. You are doing a disservice to this community and should be ashamed of yourself. Your latest antics will likely tip the scales and mean more layoffs and less services…..but I guess that’s the idea. Seems your goal has nothing to do with anything other than bankrupting the city so they are forced to privative all the services. Then, while your friends rake it in, we get raked over the coals to support profiteering at our expense. Please go away Bryant and take what few supporters you have left (obviously not enough to support your measures at the ballot booth) with you. We don’t need or want your wasteful and destructive pettiness. Your axe to grind is getting duller by the minute.

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