There appears to be some light at the end of the tunnel for Los Osos homeowners wanting help with their community sewer hook-ups, but those who have yet to seek assistance or to hookup could be seeing a stepped up enforcement process from the County.
The Los Osos CSD Board recently approved setting up a system to manage the so-called, “Los Osos Low Income Assistance Fund,” through Pacific Premiere Bank.
Money for the program, some $169,000, was provided by the National Estuary Program or NEP. According to a CSD staff report, Dist. 2 Supervisor Bruce Gibson’s office contacted the CSD back in August asking that the agency take over the program, in order to save administrative costs that the County would have charged and that would have significantly eaten up much of the money.
The CSD, and the NEP have agreed to charge a minimal administrative fee to administer the program.
That makes sense, as after an extensive public outreach to those having difficulty coming up with the money for their lateral sewer hookups, there were just eight applications filed and just six of those qualified under the terms of the program. But given the small number of applicants, the agencies agreed to fund all the requests.
The program adopted Federal Housing and Urban Development or HUD guidelines to distinguish “low” to “very low” income applicants. One applicant, (none were identified by name) was over the income limit by just $2,504 and the other by $9,354.
Under HUD’s guidelines, a 2-adult household can have a maximum income of $52,300 a year (equal to 80% of the median income).
The report lists the average cost for a lateral hookup running about $5,000, so the eight awardees would use up about $40,000 of the $169,000.
“Our suggestion,” reads a staff report by CSD general manager, Renee Osborne, “is to accept all eight applicants, and decide at a later time what to do with the remaining funds.”
They’ve gotten several suggestions, such as helping people recycle their septic tanks, off-setting low income residents with their sewer bills and reimbursing low income homeowners who have already hooked up to the sewer. However, “These examples would require a lottery process,” Osborne said.
The assistance program sent out letters to the remaining 72 homeowners who have yet to hook up to the community sewer and who qualify for cost assistance through the County.
A team of volunteers had been formed to handle the applications but as there were just eight, the committee wasn’t needed.
The payouts will be made directly to contractors on the jobs who must turn in invoices to the CSD. It was previously thought that the program would be on a reimbursement basis, which would have required people who don’t have the money in the first place to somehow come up with the money and be reimbursed.
For obvious reasons, that wouldn’t work. This way, the contractors would essentially be working for the CSD rather than the homeowners.
Though assistance is being meted out to those who need it, the County is also working on an enforcement program for the more than 100 that simply haven’t done anything.
According to a County report, when the notices to hook up were sent out in Spring 2016 with the completion of the treatment plant and collection system, property owners had 6 months to complete their hookups starting from the time they received a “Notice to Proceed” from the County. (The town was divided up into areas in order to stagger the work.)
“As of October 2017,” reads the report from County Deputy Public Works Director, Mark Hutchinson, “approximately 95-percent of the required connections have been made, leaving 245 properties unconnected. Of that number, 74 are awaiting connection through the County’s low-income connection program and 55 properties have active permits. Subtracting leaves 116 properties as the focus of this action [2.8% of required connections].”
County Supervisors pulled the item from the Nov. 7 agenda and according to Hutchinson, they plan to return with it in February after being informed by HUD that the previous applications had now expired and must be updated.
Hutchinson told The Bay News it shouldn’t be too much of a problem to update the applications, as all they need do is file new tax returns with the paperwork. The County has some $500,000 available in its assistance program and they continue to search for more grants to help as many with the burden as possible.
“They’re [applications] good for one year or six months,” Hutchinson said, “depending on who you talk to in the Federal Government.” He added that they are seeing one or two construction permit applications a week trickle in. None of the agencies involved — the County, HUD, or the water board — are much concerned about the situation, noting that some 95% of the more than 4,000 affected properties are already hooked up.
“Considering the whole history of the project,” Hutchinson said, “that’s just a phenomenal total.”
Supervisors last August directed public works to come up with an enforcement program that did three things: develop procedures to get everyone connected to the sewer; procedures for denying any building permits to any site that isn’t connected (except for correcting health and safety issues); and set up a code enforcement process that includes daily fines for non-compliance, done through a public nuisance process.
For the 55 homes that have permits the County is allowing them a grace period for as long as the permit is good, normally 2 years. Failure to complete the work by then will move the property into the “No Permit” category and subject it to the public nuisance enforcement.
The 116 unconnected parcels that haven’t obtained a permit or not qualified for assistance “will be subject to the initial round of enforcement as defined in the subject program.”
Hutchinson said their check of records discovered about half of these properties have mailing addresses (for property tax bills) outside Los Osos. Some they’ve contacted have expressed frustrations with property management companies that are “hard to get ahold of.”
In addition to the unconnected properties not being allowed permits, a “Notice of Nuisance” will eventually be filed with the property’s title and “Lenders, title companies, etc., will be notified when they do title research.”
As for fines, following a 20-day appeal period, civil fines would be levied at $100 per day.
What about the regional water board, which started the sewer ball rolling with a 1983 cease and desist order (No. 83-13)? They support the enforcement program.
“The Central Coast Water Board congratulates the County on finishing the project and accomplishing the hookup rates reported so far. We encourage the County to continue its efforts to hook everyone up to the sewer.
“At this point, we expect the County to work through its own processes, including all available enforcement actions, if necessary, to get everyone hooked up.
“In the many years it took to get the wastewater plant built, the water board did take its own enforcement actions, including issuing cease and desist orders. The water board also has the authority to issue monetary penalties to those who continue to violate the septic system discharge prohibition by not hooking up to the sewer.
“The water board would of course prefer not to have to go down that path, but will work closely with the County as we review our options in the future.”
Under the schedule set forth in Hutchinson’s report (which was postponed until possibly February) they would identify the parcels that have not yet hooked up; send out notices of violation; turn those cases over to code enforcement and send out notices of impending fines.
Hutchinson said another problem is that people with permits in hand have been having trouble scheduling a contractor to come out and do the work.
If property owners think they’re avoiding something by not hooking up, Hutchinson said that isn’t the case. The only costs they are avoiding, he explained, are the “variable costs” or the monthly costs that depend on water usage.
The debt costs for the system’s construction are being added to property tax bills, and if one doesn’t pay those, the County can seize the property and sell it.
But, “Some people don’t respond until code enforcement files for a nuisance and someone shows up with a badge,” he said. “People frequently respond to that. We have really good luck with that.”
-By Neil Farrell