March 26, 2013

Atwater takes step toward raising garbage rate

Residents soon could be saddled with another utility rate increase as the city tries to solve its financial shortfall. During a meeting this week, the Atwater City Council voted to lays the groundwork for garbage rate increases.

Residents soon could be saddled with another utility rate increase as the city tries to solve its financial shortfall.

Increases to water and waste-water rates already have residential utility bills on the rise. Now, garbage rates could follow suit.

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

As part of the Proposition 218 process, notices will be sent to property owners, who have the option of protesting the increases. If more than 50 percent protest, any rate hike would be rejected.

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.

Typical residents 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.

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.

The public pays fees into enterprise funds, which ideally would allow the services they provide to be self-sufficient.

During Monday night's meeting, Mayor Pro Tem Craig Mooneyham said no one relishes rate increases, but that there aren't many other options for improving the city's finances.

"The truth of the matter is we're still in dire financial circumstances," he said.

But not all of the council went along with the proposed rate adjustment, which passed on a 3-2 vote.

Council members Jeff Rivero and Joe Rivero voted against the item.

Because the city staff is unable to provide the council with details on how much money the garbage fund might owe other city funds until the next audit comes through, Jeff Rivero said he'd rather wait until then to get a more accurate picture of how much the rates need to be raised.

He said the city is "putting the cart before the horse" by voting to initiate rate increases before knowing those details.

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

"I want them to pay their fair share," he said, noting that the city has a lot of residents on fixed incomes, and that he doesn't want to unreasonably raise their utility bills.

The city recently has battled a general fund deficit of more than $4 million, which, coupled with deficits in Atwater's water and sanitation funds, led to a financial crisis that's resulted in pay cuts, layoffs and other reductions.

Earlier this month, residents approved an extra half-cent sales tax increase aimed at supporting public safety services. The move will increase the city's sales tax to 8 percent from 7.5 percent.

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

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