Riverbank ponders sewer rate increase

RIVERBANK — Property owners may need to get prepared for a second notice.

Parking ticket? Overdue taxes? Dog howling at night?

How about a second notice that the city needs to raise sewer rates to comply with state regulations?

The second notice would essentially say the same thing as the first, except it would be sent to all households, to property owners and renters.

In July, the city sent notices to property owners. City staff says state law requires only that owners be notified. But cities may notify renters as well.

That upset Councilman Jesse James White. He cast the dissenting vote that blocked raising sewer rates at the council's Oct. 12 meeting because he wanted renters to be notified as well.

Notification is crucial to raising sewer rates, because state law gives property owners the right to protest fee increases.

But adding renters to the notification process may not have an effect, because half of those notified must protest in order to stop a proposed hike. Of the more than 5,900 notices sent in July to property owners, only 18 owners protested.

The city also will need to figure out how to count objections from the proposed second notice. Only one objection can be counted for each parcel.

State gives notice

On the day of the Oct. 12 council vote, the California Regional Water Quality Control Board sent the city a notice of violation for not completing a state-mandated inspection and maintenance and management plan for its more than 60 miles of sewer lines. The deadline was Aug. 2.

City Manager Rich Holmer said then the city was facing fines of as much as $10,000 a day and possibly more for not being in compliance. The city has until Nov. 12 to respond to the notice.

In a staff report for tonight's meeting, Holmer wrote that what he is recommending "will help avoid penalties" from the water board.

According to Holmer, Public Works Director Dave Melilli, acting at the direction of Holmer and the city attorney, sent an e-mail Oct. 6 to water board officials asking them to send the city a letter to let the council know how serious the state mandate was. The water board responded with a notice of violation, a much harsher response than city staff expected.

"He definitely was not asking for a notice of violation," Holmer said.

Holmer is asking the council to set a public hearing for Nov. 9 to resend the notices of the proposed rate increases. He also is asking the council to let staff borrow $300,000 from reserves to pay for finishing the fencing around the city's waste-water treatment plant and to build a treatment plant lab-office with a decontamination shower to bring the plant into compliance with California Division of Occupational Safety and Health standards.

The proposed rate increase would raise $1.79 million. Besides the state mandate for the sewer lines, the increase would pay for repairs and upgrades at the treatment plant.

When the council voted to raise sewer rates two weeks ago, with a vacant mayor's seat, the council's four members would have had to vote unanimously because it takes a four-fifths majority to raise rates.

Two mayors have resigned this year to take jobs out of the area. The Nov. 3 election will fill the mayor's seat.

The City Council meets at 7 p.m. today in the City Hall Council Chambers, 6707 Third St.