WatchSonoma Watch

Wastewater lawsuit ruling to cost Petaluma


A Sonoma County judge has ruled that Petaluma must reimburse its wastewater fund as much as $2.1 million that it improperly used to pay for storm-drain maintenance over a three-year period.

An exact repayment figure hasn’t been determined, but Petaluma City Attorney Eric Danly estimated it may be closer to $1 million once additional evidence is presented.

Petaluma City hall logoBryant Moynihan, a former city councilman who routinely questions the way the city budgets its money, in particular its wastewater funds, said the full amount misspent is far larger — $6.1 million in all.

In a split ruling, Judge Gary Nadler determined last month that Petaluma had been incorrectly funding some storm-water management functions with money from ratepayers’ bills, as Moynihan argued. But he also said some of the claims were too old to consider.

The sides will meet Thursday with Nadler to set an evidentiary hearing to determine exactly how much Petaluma should reimburse its wastewater fund.

Exactly where the money would come from is undetermined, Danly said, but it could be the city’s general fund, which pays for most city functions including salaries and benefits.

Moynihan filed the lawsuit in January 2012. He argued that since 2004 the city wrongfully diverted $6.1 million from the wastewater fund, which comes from ratepayers’ bills, and spent it some stormwater management, a general fund expenditure.

He wanted the city to repay the wastewater fund and pay his attorneys’ fees.

The city has argued that diverting stormwater from the wastewater system provides at least an indirect benefit to the wastewater fund because diverted rainwater doesn’t have to be treated at the city’s sewer plant, thus saving taxpayers money.

But court rulings have said that if a benefit isn’t tied directly to the fund, fees or taxes to pay for it must be approved by voters.

Last year, the city conceded some of its spending was improper.

Moynihan contends the spending violates a number of laws and creates an illegal utility tax.

Danly said it was important that Nadler determined that the way the city began calculating its sewer rates in late 2011 is legal.

Nadler also determined that the city’s calculation of certain stormwater management expenses — called inflow and infiltration avoidance costs — are legitimately charged to the wastewater fund.

The judge said the city’s wastewater rates were commensurate with the cost to provide service.

Danly said the city plans to present “refined” evidence that could reduce the amount the judge orders Petaluma to reimburse the wastewater fund to about $1 million, or about $300,000 for the three years the order covers.

Current sewer rates won’t change as a result of the ruling, Danly said.

Moynihan said the ruling was a victory for ratepayers, although he called for more.

“If the Petaluma City Council and administration has integrity and ethics, they would return the full $6.1 million they have taken from the sewer enterprise fund,” he said. “The City Council will have wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal costs in a foolish attempt to defend their illegal activities. Only the lawyers are getting rich.”

(You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 762-7297 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com.)

4 Responses to “Wastewater lawsuit ruling to cost Petaluma”

  1. David Stubblebine says:

    I don’t know what arctic ice has to do with Petaluma waste water but if we are going to bring it up, we should at least get our facts straight. Sept 27th saw a news article saying a large freighter was crossing through the Northwest Passage (Alaska to Greenland) for the first time ever, years ahead of when earlier predictions said it might be possible; due almost entirely to shrinking arctic ice.

  2. James Bennett says:

    This is the tip of the iceberg.

    BTW; the ice in the arctic is expanding hundreds of miles per year.

    Kinda like local government corruption.

  3. Steveguy says:

    Audit them all ? I do mean ALL.

    When will we notice ? Pretty soon if they keep it up.

    How come whenever they say that they are ‘doing good ‘ for us, they fail miserably ?

    No fail, they did a $2 Million Study !!!

    Or a $5 Million study, and another $3 Million study and dozens around a mere million.

    Where does the money go ? Where does the $20 Million for the Airport mitigation go ?

    Yes $20 Million vanishes with NO paper trail, no public meetings, nothing.

    It’s a game and we are the pawns, sacrificed pawns.

    Oh my

  4. bear says:

    Do you see now?

    Tax dollars fall into slots, which means that there are constraints on how they are spent. Roads could be falling apart, but there is no ability to move tax money based on need!

    Which is not to say the dollars aren’t needed where they were directed to go.

    Hey, I didn’t invent this system.

    Politicians – federal, state and local, DID.