Saturday, 20 April 2024

Rate hike meeting elicits anger, calls for recalls of two board members

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Ratepayer Judy Heeszel questions the board about use of company trucks and who drives them at the meeting on Saturday, August 16, 2008, as Bill Rett waits his turn to ask a question. Photo by Elizabeth Larson.



CLEARLAKE OAKS – A Saturday night meeting to discuss a proposed rate hike in the Clearlake Oaks County Water District saw anger and frustration on the part of ratepayers and the launch of a possible recall effort of two board members.


Close to 100 ratepayers crowded into the Eastlake Grange on Highway 20 for the meeting, which ran more than two hours.


At times the tone of the meeting was tense, with some district customers shouting at board members, prompting board Vice President Mike Anisman to walk out.


That left board President Helen Locke and board members Harry Chase and Frank Toney to meet a quorum, since the fifth and longest-serving member of the board, Pat Shaver, did not attend.


The district initially proposed a 39.4-percent hate hike on both water and sewer rates, which district General Manager Darin McCosker said was initially believed necessary to stabilize the district's finances and make needed capital improvements, including upgrades to its High Valley tanks, as Lake County News has reported.


In the past few weeks, however, McCosker has developed two alternate rate hike proposals, one for 25 percent and another for 10 percent, which are now believed sufficient to help the district make ends meet. Ratepayers argued they hadn't been formally noticed about those options, and they asked for more information on them before a decision was made.


McCosker explained that the district's rates were currently among the lowest in the county, and that the proposed 39.4-percent increase would make the district the fifth-highest for water, with the sewer rate hike at the same amount likely to make the district's sewer rates amongst the most expensive.


He said rates haven't been raised in several years while, at the same time, the district dealt with a major sewage spill and cleanup in 2000, and had several large projects in the years since then.


Some financial measures he's proposing include reducing purchasing, paying bills on time to avoid penalties, completing complex projects in-house, a spending freeze which already is in effect and making adjustments to employee benefits.


The district takes its water from Clear Lake, paying $50 an acre foot to Yolo County for the water, said McCosker. That's not a bad price compared with some areas. “Raw water costs are astronomical throughout California,” he said.


McCosker said the district has two past-due audits with another audit coming due shortly. But his understanding of the district's financial shape is changing, and has developed more in recent months. In March, two months after he took over as general manager, he said he thought a 50-percent rate increase was necessary. But that belief has changed.


He also suggested easing into a number of capital improvements over the next few years with smaller rate increases.


The audits, and the ratepayers' concerns about the district's true budget picture, would be a recurring theme throughout the evening. Many people suggested the audits – which are required by state law –should be completed before a rate increase is considered.


As tempers flared, with people yelling at the board – sometimes several at once – Anisman became frustrated. “You don't have the right to speak to us like animals,” he told the audience.


When the yelling continued, Anisman picked up his things and walked out only a half-hour into the meeting, with several audience members immediately demanding he be removed from the board.


Many people wanted to know how the district got into its current situation. McCosker said it was not altogether unexpected, based on the result of its last audit for the 2004-05 fiscal year.


That audit, said McCosker, warned that the district's reserves, at $1.3 million in 1998, were down to $385,000 and the district needed to raise rates before the reserves were completely gone. Before McCosker took over as general manager in January, reserves were down to $13,000.


Locke said the district's former board as well as its previous general manager, Ellen Pearson, “were being too nice” in not raising rates.


During the course of the evening other ratepayer questions centered around why the district hadn't instituted a hiring freeze, water quality and chemical usage, having two staffers drive around to check meters (necessary, said McCosker, because it's quicker and the district still does meter reading with a meter book and not handheld processors, which would cost $20,000).


Within the first hour several people got up and left the meeting, frustrated over what they felt was a lack of forthright answers. Several people also didn't like having to submit written questions to the board.


Former board member Bob White, who failed to win reelection last November in the same election that saw Toney, Anisman and Locke elected, said he lost because he told people the truth about the district's situation.


He blamed the other board members on the previous board – including Chase and Shaver – for giving Pearson everything she wanted. White then went on to suggest both Chase and Shaver should be removed from the board.


“The past general manager took this water district down,” he said.


He also urged community members to give the new board a chance.


The board was roundly upbraided by town resident Mike Benjamin for its handling of the Saturday meeting. Benjamin, who has attended regular board meetings in recent months, read from the Brown Act, which explained how the public had a right to get up and ask questions during meetings rather than submit questions on cards.


“You have not allowed public testimony here at all tonight. You have only provided a lecture,” he said, getting a big round of applause.


Locke said during the meeting that the board was going to take its input gathered at the Saturday meeting and make a decision at its regular meeting this Wednesday.


Jim Burton, Clearlake Oaks' retired fire chief, suggested they call another special evening meeting and bring back more specifics on the three rate hike proposals. “You're going to have a lot of really ticked off people here if you try to pass this thing next Wednesday,” he said.


Benjamin returned to the microphone, stating the meeting was the most important the board has had in several years. He asked where Shaver was – Locke said Shaver had said she couldn't make it – and then asked if Anisman's leaving was an appropriate act.


One audience member yelled “Recall!” Benjamin then pulled out two copies of a petition for a notice of intention to circulate recall petitions on both Shaver and Anisman, and asked who would be interested in signing them, with several people indicating they were.


Toney asked who was going to step up and take those two spots on the board as Benjamin went to the back of the room and began collecting signatures.


Susan Burton urged the board to formulate a plan, which includes a completed audit, in order to move forward. She asked for them to show why the rates needed to go up and said then she would be willing to do her part and pay higher rates. Burton also asked them to consider night meetings to encourage more public participation.


“Let's get a plan, let's get an audit, let's get going,” he said.


Locke asked the crowd if they wanted another meeting to explore all of the rate options, which was answered with a definite “yes.”


The board's next regular meeting is at 3 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 20, at the district office, 12952 E. Highway 20.


Benjamin said after the meeting he received enough signatures to get started on the notice of intention to circulate the recall petitions against Anisman and Shaver.


E-mail Elizabeth Larson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 

 

 

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Water board President Helen Locke and board member Harry Chase listen to public comment during the meeting on Saturday, August 16, 2008. Photo by Elizabeth Larson.
 

 


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