Livingston council approves first step of rate increases

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comMay 21, 2014 

The Livingston City Council unanimously voted to move forward with raising the city’s water and sewer rates during a council meeting this week.

The rate increases could have been stopped if 50.1 percent of property owners affected by the hikes protested them. City officials needed to receive 1,501 protest letters by Tuesday, but they reported receiving only about 30 letters.

Of the three scenarios presented by a rate consultant, the council selected the one with the largest rate increases. City leaders said that while the rates are higher, the plan will fund all projects on the city’s capital improvement program list, including installing new water wells, purchasing operating equipment and replacing old gear.

“I was pleased by the decision because by incorporating the full CIP (capital improvement program), we’re going to be tackling all of the issues for the next five years that we know need to be addressed,” said City Manager Jose Ramirez. “Nobody wants rates to go up, but if they’re going to go up, I think the majority of people want to take care of everything so at least we know our system will be robust.”

Tuesday’s action is only the first step of the process, and council members will consider a final vote to adopt the rate increases at the next council meeting.

If approved, the current water rate of $9.90 will double to $19.08 by July 15 for homes using less than 25,000 gallons of water. The rate would increase to $22.90 in 2015, $24.26 in 2016, $26.13 in 2017 and $28.19 in 2018. Sewer rates will rise from $30 to $42.22 in July, $42.80 in 2015, $43.47 in 2016, $43.62 in 2017 and $43.84 in 2018.

The council also held a public hearing on the rates Tuesday, according to Ramirez. About half a dozen people spoke, and some expressed concerns about the increases.

“There were a couple of people that said, ‘I’m on a fixed income, and I don’t want it to go up,’ ” Ramirez said, “but at the end of the meeting, they said they understand, and we’re just going to have to make some adjustments in life.”

One of those who spoke against the increases was longtime Livingston resident Gilbert Reyes.

“There are people that are on fixed incomes, and they (council members) went with the highest (rate) scenario,” Reyes said. “What’s going to happen is, as soon as people start getting their bills, there is going to be an uproar.”

Reyes said he told city leaders and council members to “start looking for another job” because he believes the rate hikes will lead to another recall. “I told them, ‘We’re going to get rid of you,’ ” Reyes said. “We did it once, and we’ll do it again.”

An increase in rates resulted in the recall of two elected officials in 2010: Mayor Daniel Varela Sr. and Councilwoman Martha Nateras.

In an interview with the Merced Sun-Star, Nateras said the council at the time was trying to fix the city’s water problems, which included high levels of contaminants such as arsenic.

“We got the reports about the arsenic in the water, and we definitely wanted to do something about it,” said Nateras, who was on the council less than two years. “The reality is, I was trying to do the right thing for my community and for everyone.”

Nateras, who works as a guidance assistant at Livingston High School, said if the rate increases went into effect in 2010, the city might not be facing similar problems now.

“I’m very disappointed because we tried to fix the problem back in the day and people wouldn’t hear it. Now we’re back to square one,” Nateras said Wednesday.

Varela could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

After the recall, water rates were rolled back to 1995 levels. Livingston hasn’t raised water rates since 1995, and officials say the city’s water service cannot pay for itself on the old rates. Sewer rates haven’t increased since 2002.

Both the water and wastewater services have run up a $1 million deficit over the past 14 years, officials said.

Sun-Star staff writer Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

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