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.Firebrand Media LLC wants comments that advance the discussion, and we need your help to accomplish this mission. Debate and disagreement are welcomed on our platforms but do it with respect. We won't censor comments we disagree with. Viewpoints from across the political spectrum are welcome here. While everyone is entitled to their opinion, our community is not obliged to host all comments shared on its website or social media pages, including:
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