BY LIONEL EMDE, RIPTIDE CORRESPONDENTHomeowners in Pacifica should check their mailboxes for a jolly green notice from the City of Pacifica. It’s green, not in announcing some new environmental initiative, but from an increase in the flow of money from our pockets to the city’s. We should be grateful that we’re getting a notice at all, and it is the result of Proposition 218.
Under the rubric of Proposition 218, public agencies must notice ratepayers as to increases in such things as sewer charge increases, water rates, garbage rates, and other assessments, fees, or taxes on property. These notices are to go out 45 days before the rate increase, with the option offered to the ratepayer of protesting in writing. If a majority of ratepayers protest, the rate hike is not implemented.
What’s the California Legislative Analyst’s take on this law?
Current Practice. Local governments charge fees to pay for many services to their residents. Some of these fees pay for services to property, such as garbage collection and sewer service. Fees are also called ''charges."
Proposed Requirements for Property-Related Fees. This measure (Proposition 218) would restrict local governments' ability to charge ''property-related" fees. (Fees for water, sewer, and refuse collection service probably meet the measure's definition of a property-related fee. Gas and electric fees and fees charged to land developers are specifically exempted.)Public agencies, primarily large water districts in Southern California, fought the implementation of Proposition 218 for years in the courts after the voters passed it in 1996. They lost, and we as ratepayers are supposed to have this protection as settled law.
The Water District
As you read these words, your mailbox may contain the City of Pacifica’s jolly green notice for "Proposed Sewer Service Charges." In January 2010, North Coast County Water District (NCCWD) sent out a similar notice for water rate increases. What are the differences?
The NCCWD notice gets high marks, with one notable exception. In its letter, it mentions its analysis as required by Proposition 218, a list of reasons for the proposed increase, a table of tiered rate increases, and an average rate increase by tier of usage. It also details how protests may be made and received. What it doesn’t allow is protest by email, which is a ridiculous denial of how business is done in the 21st century. Indeed, it may be seen as a deliberate suppression of legitimate protest by property owners who may be struggling with pay cuts, a job loss, or even foreclosure of their home. Considering that NCCWD increased water rates for single-family residences from 13 percent to 24 percent, based on amount of water used, the least it could do is allow email protests. Contrast those fat increases with last year’s Consumer Price Index rise of 2.7 percent.
An Obscure City Process
The City of Pacifica’s sewer charge notice is a study in obscuration. It advises ratepayers: "The City calculates water consumption...for each ...customer ... in Section 6-6.407 ... which is reprinted on the back of this notice." After flipping it over and puzzling over what appears to be incomplete information, I realized it actually starts on the same side, right below "Your Opportunity to Get Involved."
In this section, recipients are advised: "Instructions on filing a written protest can be found on the City website or at City Hall." Why aren’t they explained on the flyer? On the opposite side of the notice, there is a phone number for City Hall, but that isn’t a legitimate protest vehicle, either. Pity the poor receptionist at City Hall who’ll be fielding tens if not hundreds of phone calls asking what it all means. It would seem that a lot of time and effort could be saved if the protest process were fully explained on the flyer, and just maybe that’s the point of obscuration.
If one has a computer and goes to the city’s Web site and clicks on "2010.11 Proposed Sewer Rate Increase and Information" for instruction on how to protest or even figure out what the hell’s going on, one would have to scroll forward to page 8 out of 10 of a .pdf document to get to "Guidelines for the Submission and Tabulation of Protests." The prohibition of emailed protests is there, like NCCWD’s, but the city has an additional barrier in the requirement of "...the original signature of the record owner with respect to the property identified on the protest."
Oh, and don’t forget the secret decoder ring available only at the sewage treatment plant in the dead of night at the lower entrance, using the password "Swordfish." OK, I made up that part. But somewhere, Franz Kafka laughs at the citzenry of Pacifica. If anyone thinks that the public’s involvement is really wanted, you’d have to love mazes, and believe in puzzles as a means of communications.