The Signal Hill City Council hopes to win another round in their fight against the agency responsible for managing a key area of Southern California’s groundwater supply. At the May 7 Council meeting, Signal Hill councilmembers unanimously voted to formally protest new rate increases under consideration by the Water Replenishment District of Southern California (WRD).
The City and both its Housing Authority and former Redevelopment Agency received notices that the WRD is currently considering increasing the rate for what’s called a replenishment assessment (RA). The WRD said that it will discuss the possibility of an increase to the RA from $244 to as high as $298 per acre-foot of water at a hearing today, May 10.
According to estimates provided by City Manager Ken Farfsing, this amount represents about a 22-percent increase from the previous year. Farfsing further stated that since 2006, the WRD has already increased the RA fee by approximately 96 percent.
The battle over water-replenishment fees goes back a few years after Signal Hill and other cities filed a lawsuit against the agency in 2010, claiming that the WRD’s previous attempts at rate increases should have followed the guidelines of Proposition 218 and failed to do so.
Proposition 218 requires agencies to get voter approval of proposed new taxes and fees on property owners. It also requires agencies to provide notices and schedule public hearings. Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge James Chalfant ruled in favor of the cities but has not yet determined how much the WRD should pay the cities, according to the city attorney.
Farfsing’s report included a copy of one of the notices sent to the City. His report outlined a number of reasons why Signal Hill is choosing to protest the WRD’s latest attempt at a rate hike.
“We believe that the notice fails to comply with the transparency requirements found in Proposition 218,” Farfsing wrote, “particularly the requirement that the WRD must provide notice of how it calculated the proposed rate. The WRD did not include any such information in the notice.”
Farfsing further stated in his staff report that there are “discrepancies” between the number of notices that the City received and the number of parcels that are actually owned by the City, its Housing Authority and the former Redevelopment Agency. Farfsing added in his report that the City received erroneous notices for properties that were not owned by the City and that some city employees who are also Signal Hill property owners also did not receive the notice.
“So, again, to us,” Farfsing told the Council, “it raises the question about whether the WRD really knows what they’re doing…or their consultant knows what they’re doing in terms of mailing out notices, and it may point to larger problems with their mass mailing.”
Farfsing pointed out other problems with the WRD’s proposed rate hike. After review of the available financial information from the WRD, Farfsing also challenges in his report whether the WRD can truly justify the rate increase.
City Attorney David Aleshire agreed with Farfsing’s assessment that the WRD has been making major errors.
“And we think on multiple grounds, they’re going to fail again,” Aleshire said of the WRD. “After all these years, they’re still going to be getting it wrong.”
No representatives of the WRD were present at the City Council meeting.
Farfsing acknowledged Tuesday that it was not clear whether the WRD had sent the hearing notice to all 800,000 parcel owners in the Signal Hill. The WRD could have alternately sent out the notices to only the groundwater pumpers affected by the rate hike instead of all 800,000 parcel owners, according to Farfsing.
Signal Hill Community First member Maria Harris was the only resident who spoke during the public-comment period. She spoke out against increasing water fees, but she also talked about the costs associated with Prop. 218 if the WRD were forced to comply with the proposition’s requirements. “Having to go through Prop. 218 obviously is not going to be sustainable in the long term without keeping the pressure on that water-replenishment fee going up and up and up,” Harris said, explaining that the rate could be affected by the cost of mailing 800,000 notices.
Councilmember Tina Hansen defended the original lawsuit. She stated that the lawsuit not only intended to keep rates reasonable, but it also required the WRD to justify their rate increases in a forum where anyone can ask questions.
Vice Mayor Ed Wilson added that the cities wouldn’t have been in a lawsuit if the WRD had listened to the cities in the very beginning when they asked the WRD to follow the requirements of Prop. 218.
“If they listened to the people that are paying them, if they allowed us to participate in the process, we wouldn’t even be here today now,” Wilson said. “So it’s not the cities’ lawsuit that is the reason that the rates are going up. The rates were already going up. The cities’ lawsuit is to try to keep the rates down.”
Aleshire said in a follow-up interview Tuesday night that at least Cerritos and Downey, two other cities who joined Signal Hill in the 2010 lawsuit against the WRD, will also be formally protesting this new rate increase.
“It goes on and on, so [we] can’t tell when the carousel is going to finally stop,” Aleshire said.
The public hearing will take place at 2pm on Friday, May 10 at the WRD, 4040 Paramount Boulevard in Lakewood.
Other City Council highlights:
City Commission appointments The Council appointed the following individuals to its three commissions. (All are incumbents who have been reappointed to their respective commissions, with the exception of Carmen Brooks, who is a new appointee.)
Planning Commission: Devon Austin, Thomas Benson and Shannon Murphy.
Parks and Recreation Commission: Carmen Brooks, Louise Cunningham and Gary Dudley.
Civil Service Commission: Stephen Strichart, Frank Virga and Bill Yochum.
The next City Council meeting will take place on Tuesday, May 21 at 7pm in the Council Chamber.