By: CJ Dablo
Long Beach resident Diana Lejins had warned city officials that her protest of the increase of water and sewage rates could turn messy, and her lawsuit to challenge how the City collects pipeline permit fees is making its way through the court system. The Los Angeles County’s Superior Court website notes that a trial-setting conference has been scheduled on April 25.
Lejins told the council last year that she would take her complaint to the court system when she spoke during a public-comment period on Sept. 6. At that time, the council had been deliberating over its 2016-2017 budget. Lejins criticized an increase to the water and sewer rates, noting that the increase would violate Prop. 218.
“Such actions,” Lejins told the council, “violate Proposition 218 and will, I emphasize will, invite litigation against the City.” She filed her suit weeks later.
Prop. 218 is a state law that limits how governments can impose fees and how they will be used.
According to court documents, the City acknowledges that the Long Beach Water Department does pay so-called “pipeline permit fees” to the City’s general fund.
The court documents Lejins filed in September state the crux of her complaint.
“The City has, since at least 2003 and continuing today, engaged in a practice of adopting and imposing water and sewage fees and charges that exceed the cost of providing the water and sewer services respectively,” she and her attorney stated in her original complaint. “The City designs the fees and charges for the purpose of transferring the excess fees and charges to its general fund. After the funds are transferred to the general fund, they are used for general governmental purposes. After the funds are transferred to the general fund, they are not earmarked or separately accounted for in any way.”
The City has answered the complaints. According to court documents drafted by its attorneys, it does acknowledge that every year, the Long Beach Water Department does pay pipeline fees to the City’s general fund, and it does so under the provisions of its municipal code. The City went on to confirm that these fees exceed $10 million each fiscal year since the 2013-2014 period.
The City’s water department has been budgeted to pay pipeline fees to the general fund from its water and sewer funds. In the 2016-2017 fiscal year, the amount that will be paid to the general fund has been budgeted to be over $6.146 million from its water funds and more than $4.712 million from its sewer funds, according to statements in court documents.
The City has denied the allegations brought on by the lawsuits.
It did conclude that the practice of its charges have been established in the City’s laws for a while.
“As a third, separate and distinct affirmative defense,” the city’s attorneys wrote in its response to the plaintiff, “the City alleges that the petitioner’s claims are barred by the doctrine of laches because the water department’s payments of pipeline permit fees to the City’s general fund is a practice that has been authorized by the Long Beach municipal code for many years. The payments are part of the City’s financial structure on which the City relies, and therefore the petitioner should have brought these claims earlier.”
Lejins referred requests for an interview to her attorney. Currently, Eric Benink is representing her on the case. He is a partner in the law firm Krause Kalfayan Benink and Slavens in San Diego. Lejins confirmed in a phone interview that former city councilmember Gerrie Schipske was a referring attorney on the case.
[Editor’s note: Lejins has, in the past, served as a freelance photographer for the Signal Tribune.]