A citizens’ group fighting the Morro Bay sewer project made its case to a packed house Sunday at the Inn at Morro Bay, drawing its battle line at an upcoming vote of property owners and ratepayers.
With several City officials in attendance, Citizens for Affordable Living or CAL laid out a strategy to defeat the needed Proposition 218 vote, which the City must win to move forward with its project.
City Manager, Scott Collins, was given a chance at the start to say a few words on behalf of the City, and Collins said the project was designed to ensure the city’s water future as well as meet all the laws and regulatory requirements of the Regional Water Quality Control Board and the Coastal Commission. Since coming here about 4 months ago, Collins said what he’s consistently heard from the community and the City Council is that they are most concerned with the cost and affordability.
The City’s most important duty, he explained, is to provide the services citizens are accustomed to and financed in an affordable way. He added that the Council had last year reduced the costs from $167 million to $150 million and hope to reduce it more through a competitive bidding process being done now.
They will be hiring a project manager whose job will be to watchdog the project and manage the budget, he added. They also are working on “enhancing a utility discount program” and he and the Mayor and the public works director had just gone to Washington to drum up support and low interest funding for the project.
He commented that Morro Bay is “one of the most informed and involved communities I’ve ever seen” over some 15 years in government service.
CAL’s Jeff Heller took the microphone and using a PowerPoint slide show, broke down CAL’s mission into three items — to inform residents of the upcoming voting process; how to vote against the project; and a plea to help them spread the word about the Prop 218 vote.
They want to inform the community that rate increases are coming on a project that’s either $167 million or $150 million, he said, and seems to rise in costs without any explanation other than passage of time.
CAL, he said, wants to inform everyone, “Mostly about how to vote against the rate increase.” They need donations for mailers and other expenses, like renting the Inn’s banquet room for a couple of hours, but, “More importantly than donations,” Heller said, “is you telling your friends and neighbors about this.”
He said a majority of residents don’t know they can vote against the rate increase, and that every property owner, or whomever’s name is on the City’s water and sewer bills, can vote.
To defeat the increase, more than 50% of the properties must cast a “No” vote and failing to vote or abstaining technically counts as a “Yes.” It’s a daunting task ahead.
“We need 3,000 votes to win,” Heller said. “That’s 10 to 20 times the number of people in this room.”
He showed an example of what’s required on a “ballot,” really just a signed letter, including name, address and/or assessor’s parcel number, and a statement that you protest the proposed rates. The vote takes place over 45 days but there is no schedule yet for the vote. First, new proposed rates based on the $150 million figure or whatever it is now, must be released for comment and approved by the city council to go to a vote.
Heller asked property owners in the room, “How would your life be impacted if your sewer and water rates doubled?”
He noted that in 2013, a previous project was estimated at $38 million and now it’s $167-$150 million in just 5 years. He pledged that CAL will have current information available on its Facebook Page, see: www.facebook.com/Citizens-for-Affordable-Living-MB-121468178535758 and via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Another CAL member, Barry Branin, talked about the current plant and its issues. “It’s well kept and very clean,” he said of the Atascadero Road plant. He pointed out that the plant’s audit indicated the flow to the plant can increase by as much as 500,000 gallons with 1-inch of rainfall, which means the collection system is leaky.
But that inflow is “clean water coming in,” he said. So the plant doesn’t violate its permit with the discharge during these heavy flows. “In my opinion,” Branin said, “we have a worse problem with our collection system. Our collection system is critical.”
He criticized the project for not having someone onboard specifically to track the money being spent. “I think frankly, some of the consultants have not been looking out for my interest.”
He advocates waiting until after Cayucos builds its own plant and removes 25% of the daily flow and then invest in the old plant. “I believe that a $20 million investment on that plant would give it a tune-up” and then continue to operate until a new affordable project is devised. “We don’t have a Malibu budget,” he said.
Branin admitted that he was one of the dozen people and environmental groups that appealed the City’s first project in 2010 to the Coastal Commission. He said he believed it was the wrong type of plant but was in the right place. And now, he wants to halt the City’s new project.
“If we allow what we’re doing to go ahead,” Branin said, “the impact on the city is going to be merciless.”
After the meeting, Collins was asked for a reaction to what he’d just heard. The message “resonates,” he said. “It’s what I’ve been hearing regarding the scope and costs and the impact to the community.”
He said the City is bound by the constraints from the water board and Coastal Commission to deliver a project on a time schedule. As to the 218 vote, “Our job is to share the information and explain what happens if we can’t move forward with a project.”
In recent times, the main Prop 218 vote to fail in SLO County happened in Paso Robles over proposed water rates for the Nacimiento Lake Water Project. After the negative votes, the City had to go back and rework the rates until the community accepted it.
CAL has a website where readers can get more information, see: https://calmorrobay.com. And the city has the project’s official documents posted online, see: www.morro-bay.ca.us and type “WRF” in the search window.
By Neil Farrell