Atwater councilman makes big hairy deal over rate hike

mnorth@mercedsunstar.comApril 9, 2013 

— There's a hairy situation developing in Atwater.

A dispute over looming utility rate increases has prompted one councilman to shave his head in protest of what he labels as an "unjust" burden to residents.

During a meeting late last month, the City Council selected a new garbage rate model and voted to start the Proposition 218 process, which lays the groundwork for rate increases.

But the action didn't get full support from the City Council -- it passed on a 3-2 vote.

Councilman Jeff Rivero is at odds with the increases to the garbage rate because he thinks more information is needed before the city can accurately revise the rates.

Some city officials claim the rate increases are needed to correct and stabilize the sanitation enterprise fund and repay $3.6 million it's borrowed from other city funds.

However, it's unknown exactly what funds the money came out of and how much was taken out of each fund. And if the money was taken out of the general fund, Rivero said, that money might not need to be paid back immediately.

If that's the case, any possible rate increases could be much lower, he said.

He's in favor of waiting until the city's financial consultant gets an audited and more accurate picture of how much money the fund owes and how much rates might need to be increased.

"It's putting the cart before the horse," he said of the process to this point.

Rivero said Atwater's commercial garbage rates are far lower than the average of other cities. He said he'd like to see commercial rates raised so residents aren't subsidizing businesses.

Rivero said he wanted to be "crystal clear" on his opposition to the proposed increases.

"I personally feel that the tax is unjust to the citizens of Atwater and I have shaved my head in protest and will refuse to grow the hair until we can come up with ways to make it better," he said at the end of Monday's council meeting.

"I wanted to make it perfectly clear so that there would be no lies or accidental misinformation about which council member supports or opposes the current solid waste 218 tax increase," he said.

The three council members who passed the proposed rate adjustment -- Mayor Joan Faul, Mayor Pro Tem Craig Mooneyham and Councilman Larry Bergman -- claim the extra money is needed to help improve the city's financial situation and the deficit in the sanitation fund.

When the item was passed late last month, Mooneyham said he doesn't take pleasure in raising rates, but there aren't many other options to improve the city's finances.

During Monday's meeting, Bergman said he's gotten several emails over the past couple weeks from people opposing the rate increases.

"There are a lot of differing views on this 218 process," he said.

Bergman encouraged more people to make their thoughts known.

"Regardless of how I voted on anything, I want to hear from all citizens -- how they feel," Bergman said. "Whether it's for or against, it's your right and I want to hear your concerns and your comments."

As proposed by the city, garbage rates would increase over a five-year span, starting with a 62.7 percent increase in year one, then 6 percent or 7 percent increases annually for the next four years.

Atwater operates with a two-can system -- one for garbage and another for green waste.

Residents typically pay $15.49 a month for garbage service, city documents show. That rate would jump to $25.20 with the initial 62.7 percent increase.

After additional, smaller increases over the next few years, residents would be paying $32.11 a month in the 2017-18 fiscal year. If the city implements a third can for recycling, those monthly payments would total $35.06.

Reporter Mike North can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or mnorth@mercedsunstar.com.

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