State

Keyes pays more for streetlights even though measure defeated

KEYES — People here paid higher street-light fees this year despite rejecting the increase last year.

Elected officials in charge of the street-light district and their lawyer failed to return calls since Tuesday on the estimated $18,000 problem, now 6 months old. A secretary said it was a simple mistake.

Parcel owners in the Keyes Community Services District were asked on the June 2008 ballot to double streetlight fees, from $10 to $20 per year, with a bump to $25 in three years. These property-linked special taxes require two-thirds approval, or 66.67 percent. Measure P received 55.31 percent of the vote.

"We were under the impression it was 50 (percent) plus 1," said Rosemary Winter, district office supervisor and secretary to the board of directors. She referred questions to Modesto attorney Daniel Schroeder, who did not return calls.

The office billed everyone at the higher rate in January. Keyes had 4,757 residents and 1,471 homes in 2000, according to the U.S. Census; about 250 more houses went in since, and owners of stores and other businesses pay streetlight assessments as well.

Jeff Reed, a member of the Keyes Municipal Advisory Council who helped campaign for Measure P, discovered the error last month and called Stanislaus County Supervisor Vito Chiesa, who represents Keyes.

"I asked him what we should do," Reed said. "I'm just a citizen trying to watch over the community."

Chiesa persuaded the district's board members to call a special meeting June 17, where he urged them to inform ratepayers about the mistake. But board members tabled the matter and took no action at their regular June 23 meeting.

"I believe they want to do the right thing," Chiesa said. "It's hard for me to say why they haven't dealt with it yet."

The Bee was unable to reach board members Henry Benavides, Davie Landers, Robert Taylor, Casey Chadwick or Harinder Grewal despite leaving several messages. The board has not had a chairman since the last one resigned, Winter said. The board members are paid $100 per month and meet monthly to discuss water and sewer services in addition to street lighting.

Winter said the district had received less than $10,000 in overpayments. A higher amount had been billed, but she refused to say how much.

Landers and Grewal serve with Reed on the municipal advisory council, a nonpaid panel that advises county supervisors. The community services district, however, is independent, including collecting assessments. The district saved the cost of holding a special election by piggy-backing Measure P with the June primary last year.

Review called vote a failure

County Counsel John Doering said he was asked to review the matter and concluded that the measure had failed. Some fees can be approved by a simple majority of parcel owners, he said, but the district had opted to ask residents, triggering the higher threshold. County election officials report votes and percentages but do not declare victory or defeat for such measures; that's up to district officials.

"We were all happy" when it appeared Measure P had passed, Reed said. The subsequent problem "just needs to be dealt with," he said.

Options might include refunds or credits on future bills. Modesto honored such requests from businesses that had overpaid the city's mil tax in 2002. Doering said the district's lawyer "indicated it might take a couple of months" to iron out.

"It seems to be a simple mistake," Chiesa said. "There are generally so many good things going on in Keyes, I would hate for this to create mistrust. It just needs to be dealt with in an expedient manner."

Keyes Community Services District board members may discuss streetlight fees at a meeting scheduled for 6 p.m. July 28 at the district office, 5601 Seventh St., Keyes.

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or 578-2390.

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