By CLARK MASON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A crowd of more than 100 filled the Cloverdale City Council chamber Wednesday night, mostly to register objections to hefty water and sewer rate increases.
Water rates will increase 55 percent and sewer by 20 percent, beginning in April, part of a series of hikes recommended by consultants.
“No one likes what we’re having to deal with. It’s not an easy thing to resolve,” Mayor Joe Palla said of the need for the increases, what he said was necessary for quality of life and economic development.
“We’ve had some tough votes. This is the toughest I’ve ever seen,” Vice Mayor Carol Russell said before joining her colleagues in the 5-0 vote to approve the new rates.
The combined water and sewer bill for a typical residence, now $58.92 per month, will increase to $85.79, rather than the $91.21 previously proposed.
“We are being responsive to the community and coming back with an adjusted lower rate,” Public Works Director Craig Scott said of the smaller increase that ended up being approved.
But those who spoke Wednesday weren’t appeased.
“It seems it will be a real heavy burden you’re laying on us,” said Ellie Strauss, a Cloverdale resident. “I’ll never understand why you didn’t do some incremental increase.”
Resident Roberta Callahan told the City Council the rate hikes are “unbearable” and suggested the city instead sell surplus property to help offset the rate hikes.
“There has to be a way out of this. We cannot accept this,” she said.
Others asked if there wasn’t some discount that could be given to low-income households, but city officials said state law essentially prohibits some customers from subsidizing lower rates for others.
The city received more than 800 letters of protest from the approximate 2,900 parcels in Cloverdale, not enough for the majority needed to stop the rate increases.
Councilwoman Mary Ann Brigham said no one likes “getting bills that will affect them adversely,” but said “our hands are tied.”
Public Works Director Scott said larger rate hikes were avoided by postponing a new well project and replacement of a storage tank.
Many questioned why it’s been more than seven years since the city raised rates, creating the need for such a large hike now.
Scott said staff reduction may have been a factor, particularly in the administrative finance department, which lost 35 percent of its personnel in recent years.
“The workforce was cut down dramatically, a contributing factor. Who is going to be there to raise the red flag?” he said of when revenues dip too much to cover debt obligations.
City officials noted that a combined Cloverdale monthly bill still will remain the lowest in Sonoma County. By comparison, the typical residential bill in Healdsburg is $137, Santa Rosa is $116 Sebastopol is $111, Petaluma is $96 and Rohnert Park is $89, according to figures cited by the Reed Group consultants.
Cloverdale officials say the rate increases are urgently needed for maintenance and system upgrades, part of which will be paid for with a low-interest, long-term loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The utilities have been underfunded as a result of a number of factors, including a virtual halt in construction during the recession, leading to the loss of more than $2 million in development impact fees that had been counted on to pay the debt on past sewer and water upgrades.
Future rate increases approved Wednesday call for another 13 percent increase for water in April 2014 followed by 5 percent each year in 2015 and 2016.
Sewer rates will go up another 9 percent in July 2014, followed by 5 percent annually in the succeeding two years.
You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at5 521-5214 or firstname.lastname@example.org.