Laguna Beach Residents and Businesses Might Pay More to Flush Their Toilets

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A file photo of construction on a section of the North Coast Interceptor near South Coast Highway and Nyes Place. (Courtesy of Laguna Beach)

Laguna Beach signaled its plan for a 5% hike on residential and commercial customers’ wastewater bills starting this summer to help pay for sewer improvements that are needed to prevent future sewage spills.

For a single-family household, the monthly bill would increase from $63.73 to $66.73. The average commercial ratepayer would see their monthly bill grow from $329 to $374.

The Laguna Beach City Council decided not to pursue a 10% rate increase, which would have provided funding for a more aggressive overhaul of the city’s aging wastewater system. Regardless, the proposed rate increase would only last for one year, requiring councilmembers to revisit the issue and agreed to a long-term solution in 2021.

“Part of the problem is that the sewer system continues to age like everything else over time and the city has invested millions of dollars and will be putting out information over the coming weeks on how much money the city has spent and what they’ve spent it on,” City Manager John Pietig said Tuesday.

Nearly a year ago, the Moulton-Niguel Water District agreed to pay $4.8 million to settle a lawsuit filed by the South Orange County Wastewater Authority and its member agencies, including Laguna Beach, over who should pay for the cost of repairing or replacing the Coastal Treatment Plant in Aliso Canyon. This litigation held up necessary repairs for two years.

Ratepayers will have the opportunity to air their concerns at a public workshop that hasn’t been scheduled yet. If they wish, ratepayers can then officially protest through a mail-in ballot, which must receive a simple majority of no votes to block the rate increase.

The short-term funding plan for the wastewater system also includes a temporary loan of $1 million to $1.5 million from the city insurance fund to help pay the administrative fine for the Thanksgiving Day sewage spill that’s anticipated to come down from the San Diego Regional Water Quality in coming months. The city could apply up to 50% of this sum to future wastewater system improvements. This loan will be repaid over five years, according to a staff report.

Some residents and business owners are flummoxed that city leaders would even consider raising fees in the middle of the economic fallout from the coronavirus. However, Laguna Beach residents should be just as concerned about the threat of sewage spill-prompted beach closures as the weeks-long order to block coastal access over virus community spread, said Roger Butow, executive director of Clean Water Now.

“The city needs to bite the bullet and explain to the taxpayers that this is what is best for the environment,” Butow said. “I don’t see the political will on that [city] council. It’s kind of sad.”

In the wake of the Thanksgiving Day spill that dumped 1.7 million gallons of raw sewage into the Pacific Ocean at Alison Beach, city leaders are anticipating enforcement action from San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board that could be up to $2 million

Councilmember Peter Blake asked Pietig if pursuing a higher sewer increase of 10% would positively impact how state water regulators view the city and allow some of the anticipated fine to be used for improving Laguna Beach’s wastewater system.

“I do believe that the more that the regional board thinks that the city is taking this seriously and investing in the system the greater chance we will have at negotiating down the fines,” Pietig said.

The bottom line is that Laguna Beach ratepayers will pay dearly for past city councils’ decision to defer sewer maintenance over the past two decades, Butow said.

“It’s like an old car,” Butow said. “At any point in the last 22 years, the city could have spent a few million dollars per year.”

Butow’s criticism of the lack of foresight by city leaders was echoed by Laguna Beach resident Michael Morris during the council meeting on Tuesday.

“The City Council has been content to avoid seriously focusing on our decrepit server system which has been in need of emergency repairs for decades and as a result has caused our ocean to experience repeated spillages and our ratepayers needing to pay fines,” Morris said.

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3 COMMENTS

  1. While I await fiscal watchdogs with pitchforks and weapons at my metaphorical door to comment, i.e., shoot the messenger that is Clean Water Now? Oversight, the resident’s spotlight response to rate increases, should have been laser focused on City Hall these past 22+ years, since CWN was birthed in this berg.
    Born in the crucible of chronic sewage spills and high bacterial concentration counts in our tidal areas, LB was averaging 1 SSO every 3 weeks back in the late 90s—early 2000s, hence the name we came up with in our common outrage: NOW, not whenever the City gets around to it—-Otherwise we’d have named it CLEAN WATER WHENEVER.
    So I guess myself & my NGO are abject, total failures: We’ve been educating not litigating to stuff our pockets, been Paul Revere, ringing the alarm bell gratisasaservice to our community, flying the red warning flag basically solo. Where were or where are the other self-proclaimed protectionists?
    The positive optics of Laguna’s pristine eco-image, as marine habitat stewards, are deteriorating, obviously ramped up and getting increased SM, MSM and regulatory scrutiny after, according to the Technical Report submitted by the City to Cal/EPA in San Diego, the 1.87 million gallon spill this past Thanksgiving.
    The historical truth is that both the City Manager & Water Quality Director were touted when hired in the early 2000s as integral in the rehabilitation of our sewer system. New dawn, new day, gonna turn this thing around, no more spills, an initial $18.9 million in projects, spread over 10 years, promised for piping and pump stations, blah blah blah. The City entered into a contractual resolution (Consent Decree) for that sum and those conditions with USEPA.
    Well, ARE we better off today? No.
    In 2015 the rehab estimation was $35 million, yet another Nikita Khruschev-like 10 Year CIP Plan.
    Now the City Hall estimates are $45 million +, deadline of 2031, I mean, are we having fun yet?
    Meanwhile, both the CM and WQD made millions of $$$ in salaries, plus those wonderful yet mysteriously automatic “5% bonus performance” sums in the tens of thousands by now: The best they can come up with are Alfred E. Neumann, “What me worry?” smiles.
    Do the math, Laguna: 30 years to fix one of the main problems these 2 men were specifically hired to solve. In the private sector, they’d have been fired for incompetence long along, a corp would get someone who could get the job done. NOW.
    Instead, these men are rewarded (overly so in my estimation)……and like 10 year old boys, use the equivalent of “My dog ate my homework.” Presently they’re using the Covid-19 crisis for their duck & cover.
    Now it’s MNWD’s fault. Always a different excuse but still absent or severely tardy, reminding me of Juan Epstein’s self-written notes from the TV show WELCOME BACK (Mr. Kotter).
    Just as “Justice delayed is justice denied,” in this case IOUs, indefinitely deferred maintenance, lack of fiduciary sensitivity by both appointed and elected officials since 2000, failing to properly inform taxpayers of the urgency and timeliness, these and other factors got us here. Lessons haven’t been learned, only creative exculpatory excuses. I mean those usual dude remedies, duct tape and permatex sealant, band-aids on infrastructure rapidly deteriorating, in wastewater entropy, will only get you so far.
    Am I the only one who sees the irony? THE 2 key personnel, who will probably be retired and living lavishly somewhere else by 2031, won’t have to deal with the blowback or fallout—Fiscal or environmental. They got theirs.
    City Hall gave them a lifetime of personal security, oh how they suffer working in the most beautiful beach community around, and yet we might never be able to raise that MISSION ACCOMPLISHED petard.
    All because of no adequate follow-through, no full implementation at key junctures.
    CWN believes that staff and council will point to ≈$1 million/year spent these past 18 years, but facts are facts, including their own assessments: $2–2.5 million/year since 2002 and we’d have made significant progress by now. Our system has been chronically, intentionally under-funded.
    Instead, in a form we believe is outright malfeasance and dereliction of duty, cue up John & Yoko: Starting in May or June, “It’ll be just like starting over.”
    Right back behind our 20+ year BFF, the sewer spill 8-Ball.

  2. Thank you for this information. I find it shocking that this is how city officials have allowed our city management to operate all of these years. It seems highly irresponsible that we have gotten so far behind in infrastructure that we are plagued today with disastrous sewer spills threatening us. Not sure what part of CWN’s historical overview outrages me more.

    This: “The historical truth is that both the City Manager & Water Quality Director were touted when hired in the early 2000s as integral in the rehabilitation of our sewer system. New dawn, new day, gonna turn this thing around, no more spills, an initial $18.9 million in projects, spread over 10 years, promised for piping and pump stations, blah blah blah. The City entered into a contractual resolution (Consent Decree) for that sum and those conditions with USEPA. Well, ARE we better off today? No.”

    This: “In 2015 the rehab estimation was $35 million, yet another Nikita Khruschev-like 10 Year CIP Plan.
    Now the City Hall estimates are $45 million +, deadline of 2031, I mean, are we having fun yet? Meanwhile, both the CM and WQD made millions of $$$ in salaries, plus those wonderful yet mysteriously automatic “5% bonus performance” sums in the tens of thousands by now.”

    Or this: “CWN believes that staff and council will point to ≈$1 million/year spent these past 18 years, but facts are facts, including their own assessments: $2–2.5 million/year since 2002 and we’d have made significant progress by now. Our system has been chronically, intentionally under-funded. Instead, in a form we believe is outright malfeasance and dereliction of duty, cue up John & Yoko: Starting in May or June, “It’ll be just like starting over.” Right back behind our 20+ year BFF, the sewer spill 8-Ball.”

    And finally, this statement: “Oversight, the resident’s spotlight response to rate increases, should have been laser focused on City Hall these past 22+ years.” is an understatement. Clearly, residents are presented with the pressing question of how future oversight will be handled and how much money is enough given the magnitude of the negligence problem. And who in office, or currently employed, will be here to ensure any more accountability than what we have already experienced?

    And the beat goes on…

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