Notices about Livingston rate increases to go out Friday

Livingston Mayor Rodrigo Espinoza, who was elected in 2010 after the previous mayor was recalled over water rate hikes, said the increases being proposed now are different.
Livingston Mayor Rodrigo Espinoza, who was elected in 2010 after the previous mayor was recalled over water rate hikes, said the increases being proposed now are different. Merced Sun-Star

Notices about the city’s proposed water and sewer rate increases will be mailed to residents beginning Friday, the City Council decided unanimously at a council meeting Tuesday.

The notices are the first step in the Proposition 218 process, which allows property owners 45 days to protest the rate hikes by writing a letter. Council members said renters and landlords can also protest the rates, but only one letter will be counted per parcel.

The protest letters must be mailed or dropped off to City Hall, officials said. If at least 50 percent of affected residents plus one protest the hikes, the City Council cannot move forward with raising the rates. In Livingston, about 3,000 property owners would be affected by the increases.

Officials said letters should specify if residents are against either the water or sewer rate hikes, or both. If letters do not specify, officials will assume the protest is against both rate increases.

The first public hearing about the rate increases is scheduled for May 20. Four out of five council members – known as the supermajority – must vote in favor of the hikes on May 20 to move the process forward. Then a second public hearing will be held, requiring the same number of votes.

Utility rate increases have been a hot-button issue for the city in the past.

An increase in rates resulted in the recall of two elected officials in 2010: Mayor Daniel Varela Sr. and Councilwoman Martha Nateras. City Manager Richard Warne vacated his position shortly after, which some said was political fallout from the rate increases. The water rates were rescinded to their previous amounts.

Livingston resident Gilbert Reyes was there for the recall effort in 2010 and stood strongly against it, but spoke out Tuesday night against the rate hikes. Reyes, 57, said he favored the 2010 increases because he felt they were necessary to fix the city’s water problems. He said he also felt the City Council back then had the “backbone” to support the hikes.

“The reason I am opposed to this now,” Reyes said, “is because they spent money to do a water study – this is the fourth one that they’ve done – to be told the exact same thing, which is that the city needs to raise the water rates. They have known about this for the past 12 years.”

Reyes said if city leaders had corrected the problem 12 years ago by raising rates gradually, the city wouldn’t be facing these issues now. “They are nothing but a bunch of hypocrites,” he said. “They were against the water rates and orchestrated the recall. Now they are doing the same thing they were against last time.”

Livingston Mayor Rodrigo Espinoza said the rate increases being proposed now are different than those that sparked the recall. For example, the mayor said the 2010 proposal capped water usage at 6,000 gallons for residents — charging them hundreds of dollars for going over that limit.

“Everyday we were getting people crying to us that they’re paying $200 or $300 a month for water,” Espinoza said, adding that at least half the residents went over the 6,000-gallon limit.

The new proposal allows residents and commercial businesses 25,000 gallons of water. If residents go over that limit, they will be charged about a dollar for each additional 1,000 gallons of water.

Other council members Tuesday acknowledged the city’s ongoing water problems, but stressed the importance of taking care of the issue now. “If we don’t do the preventative maintenance now, we’ll have bigger problems in the future,” said Councilman Jim Soria, comparing it to changing the oil on a car.

“A lot of people don’t like it, but it’s something that needs to be addressed now,” chimed in Councilman Arturo Sicairos.

Livingston Mayor Pro Tem Gurpal Samra said he believes the process has been fair and transparent, especially with the addition of a stakeholders’ committee to discuss water issues. “I’m not sure how anyone can say it hasn’t been transparent because we’ve done everything out in the open,” he said.

City officials also announced three public workshops to discuss the rates: April 8 in English; April 10 in Spanish; and April 22 in Punjabi. The workshops will begin at 6 p.m. in the City Council chamber, 1416 C St.