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Proposition 218 Is The Fastest Way To Raise Money, But Is It Right?

 

“I have never understood why it is ‘greed’ to want to keep the money you’ve earned, but not greed to want to take somebody else’s money.”

—Thomas Jefferson

Proposition 218

Ventura Water will push the boundaries of the law as it tries to use Proposition 218 to raise money to meet the Wishtoya Foundation Consent Decree.

In the next 12 months, Ventura Water will ask the City Council to increase water rates for 30 wastewater projects and 28 water projects by 2024. These costly projects will benefit some property owners. Other projects will help the community at large.

As of June 30, 2018, Ventura Water accumulated $115,000,000 for projects they planned to build between 2012-2018. Still, they need $449,586,000 more before 2024. How did we commit to spending almost $450 million, and why weren’t you asked to vote on it?

WHAT WILL THIS COST YOU?

These new rate increases will come on top of the increases imposed over the last six years. In 2012, Ventura Water wanted to increase rates to:

  1. Replacing aging pipelines and facilities
  2. Building projects to improve water quality
  3. Constructing new groundwater wells

In 2012 the average homeowner and family of 4, received a bi-monthly bill of $73.27 and sewer charges of $72.45 for a total of $145.72. That same family is paying $105.03 for water in 2018.  Add sewer charges of $104.64 and their total bill is $209.67.  This is a 43% increase over the 2012 rates.

From 2018-2024, expect a similar rate of growth. Your new water bill may look like this:Proposition 218

HOW DID WE GET INTO THIS SITUATION?

Propoosition 218In March 2012, the Ventura City Council signed a Consent Decree that requires Ventura Water to stop putting 100% of its treated wastewater into the Santa Clara River estuary by January 2025. The decree stems from a Federal complaint filed by Wishtoya Foundation. Former City Manager, Rick Cole and Ventura Water General Manager, Shana Epstein, signed the consent decree on behalf of the city. The city no longer employs either of them.

Keep in mind that voters had no voice in the City Council consenting to the decree in 2012. Now, Ventura Water wants to deny voters the chance to say how we spend the money to meet the order, too. It plans to use Proposition 218 to get those funds.

HOW AND WHY CAN VENTURA INCREASE MY RATES?

So how can Ventura Water impose such large fees against its citizens without the traditional right to vote on such matters? The answer lies in how Ventura implements Proposition 218. Approved by the voters in 1996, Proposition 218 allows Ventura to raise money in one of three ways:

  1. General taxes. Those taxes used for general governmental purposes. Prop 218 requires the traditional voting procedure, notice, a ballot and an election measure. 51% of the voters must approve it. Ventura’s Measure O sales tax was one such example.
  2. Special Taxes. Any tax imposed for specific purposes and placed in a general fund. A Special Tax requires a 2/3 (66.67%) majority vote. The City sought this type of tax in 2009. It was Measure A on the ballot. It was a 1/2 cent sales tax for public safety and other specific projects. Monies would have been placed in the city’s General Fund. It failed.
  3. Special Assessments, Fees and Charges. Fees or charges means an assessment imposed as an incident of owning property which receives a unique benefit. The city can only impose such fees by affirmative voter approval. The exception being that prior voter approval is not required for “any assessment imposed exclusively to finance capital costs or maintenance and operation expenses for sidewalks, streets, sewers, water…”

VENTURA WATER TURNS A NON-VOTE INTO A YES VOTE

Ventura wants to use option C, Special Assessments, Fees and Charges to impose higher water rates.

Here’s how they’ll do it. Instead of putting it on the ballot, Ventura Water sends a water bill. Somewhere in the body of that bill, it tells you why the rate increase is necessary. You may dispute the rate increase by voting “NO” within 45 days, but the process is cumbersome. To disagree, you must download a protest form, complete and mail it or take it to City Hall by a specific date. Fail to jump over those hurdles and the City doesn’t care what you think or want. If 51% of the ratepayers have not voted ‘NO,’ that is the end of the matter. There are 32,000 ratepayers. Sixteen thousand one must vote NO to defeat an increase.

Proposition 218, now Article XIII C and D of the California Constitution, made the following findings:

         “The people of the State of California hereby find and declare that Proposition 13 was intended to provide effective tax relief and to require voter approval of tax increases.  However, local governments have subjected taxpayers to excessive tax, assessment, fee and charge increases that not only frustrate the purposes of voter approval for tax increases but also threaten the economic security of all Californians…This measure protects taxpayers by limiting the methods by which local governments exact revenue from taxpayers without their consent.”

When the City sought the last rate increase they took the position that they had the right to raise the rates without prior voter approval. They believed the procedures they followed were consistent with Prop 218 language, as interpreted by the California Supreme Court.  They maintain that they “may raise other fees or impose new fees without prior voter approval” for anything they chose to label a water or wastewater project.

But it doesn’t end with this interpretation alone. A California Supreme Court challenge goes further.

TESTED IN THE COURTS

The California Supreme Court in Bighorn-Desert View Water Agency v. Verjil (2006)39 Cal.4th 205, at page 205, addressed the question of whether voters had the right to put an initiative on the ballot to reduce water rates. The court ruled in favor of the water agency and interpreted Prop 218’s language to mean a city “may raise other fees or impose new fees without prior voter approval.”  The Court’s decision was specific. It didn’t involve the question of whether imposing fees to deal with a Consent Decree are valid.

Notwithstanding the protective measures of Prop 218, the City of Ventura conveniently interprets Prop 218 to still impose fees and charges beyond the simple costs of service to the homeowner. However, the court never went that far.

The City of Ventura’s interpretation of Proposition 218 is overreaching when it comes to any matter about water, wastewater and related environmental projects.

That decision by the Supreme Court only involved the issue of water delivery through a pipeline and whether voters could use an initiative process to require prior voter approval for the costs of that delivery.   It did not involve a question of whether fees imposed to deal with a $500 million water and wastewater projects together with environmental costs, expert studies, attorneys fees and a plethora of expenses arising out of a ConsentDecree decided by a City Council in 2012, and in which the voters had no voice.

What if the costs are not exclusively operational costs? What if the expenditures benefit the entire community, not just ratepayers? Does Proposition 218 apply in those circumstances? Bighorn-Desert View Water Agency v. Verjil does not answer these questions.

No Precedent For What They Plan To Do

In determining whether to seek prior voter approval, we hope that the new City Council will keep in mind the following the language from the Supreme Court in Bighorn case:

            “…the agency’s governing board may … raise fees or impose other fees and new fees without prior voter approval.  Although this power-sharing arrangement has the potential for conflict, we must presume that both sides will act reasonably and in good faith, and that the political process will eventually lead to compromises that are mutually acceptable and both financially and legally sound.”        (Emphasis added).

THE CITY MAY FACE A SERIOUS LEGAL CHALLENGE

If the City is considering rate increase of this magnitude without prior voter approval they should be mindful of the language in Prop 218. It provides that “in any legal action contesting the validity of an assessment, the burden is on the agency (Ventura Water) to demonstrate that the …properties in question receive a special benefit over the benefits conferred on the public at large…”

Complying with the Consent Decree by not putting wastewater into the Santa Clara River benefits all citizens, not just ratepayers.

Editor’s Comments

Ventura Water is proposing a mix of costly projects. Some will benefit property owners, and some will help the community at large. Building a pipeline and related infrastructure to import state water at the cost of $50 million benefits all property owners. Ratepayers generally accept this. Spending beyond that to build projects to satisfy a federal judgment on the Santa Clara Estuary to protect the ecology of the estuary is a problem.

Proposition 218 may not cover projects to meet a federal judgment on the Santa Clara Estuary to protect the ecology. We recommend a vote of the citizens in that instance.

Warn The City Council Of Ventura Water’s Potential Error

Below you’ll find the photos of our current City Council. Click on any Councilmember’s photo and you’ll open your email program ready to write directly to that Councilmember.

Let then know that Venturans must vote on a water rate increase to pay for the consent decree. Not participating in government makes us worse because our city government isn’t working for all of us.

Councilmembers Councilmembers
Councilmembers Councilmembers
Councilmembers Councilmembers

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What You Missed In The 2018 State-Of-The-City Speech

“We’re no longer a quaint little beach town.” —Ventura Mayor Neal Andrews

Mayor Neal Andrews’s State-of-the-City address was noteworthy more for what he didn’t say. The speech was a summary of last year’s events delivered by each of the major department managers with summary comments by Mr. Andrews.

What this year’s address lacked was a vision for Ventura’s future. Neither Mr. Andrews nor the city’s department heads mentioned job creation, new sources of revenue or business development. Instead, we heard how the city utilized Measure O’s $10.8M sales tax revenue.

The fact remains that Ventura faces significant challenges. The recovery from the devastating Thomas Fire has brought out the best in people but also exposed failures in systems and processes. We acknowledge the heroic efforts of citizens, police, fire and water personnel who fought to prevent further tragedy. But, we must temper those accomplishments with the systemic failures by the local government that contributed to this horror.

2018 Challenges Not Addressed In The State-of-the-City

Rebuilding After The Thomas Fire

Post-fire reconstruction is overwhelming the Building & Safety Department. Community Development Director Jeff Lambert put a brave face on it, but the stress was palpable.

City Manager

There is currently no City Manager. Assistant City Manager Dan Paranick stepped up to lead the city’s recovery efforts. From all indications, he is performing proficiently. Nonetheless, the search goes on for a permanent replacement.

Water Department’s New General Manager

New Ventura Water General Manager, Kevin Brown assumed leadership only weeks before the Thomas Fire. He now faces the double task of improving performance while he defends the city against lawsuits filed in the aftermath of the Thomas Fire.

Elections By District

The 2019 City Councilmembers will represent specific voting districts. Before 2018, voters elected Councilmembers “at large” to serve the entire city. This change will force Councilmember Mike Tracy and Mayor Neal Andrews to retire from City Council. New faces representing the Ventura Avenue and East Saticoy Districts will occupy their seats on the Council.

The Deafening Silence

In the closest thing to providing a vision of Ventura’s future, Mayor Andrews laid out his commitment to “focus on building prosperity.” He plans to support the business community, but he shared no specific policies or initiatives.

Another of Mayor Andrews’s commitments was to “radically increase the city’s technology.” He plans to do this through an improved broadband strategy. He revealed no further details or costs or how to pay for this plan.

Pragmatically Looking Ahead

What we know is Ventura faces specific, severe financial and budgetary challenges, even with the Measure O revenue. What we don’t know is from where the extra funding will come.

Other issues not commented on were:

  • Ventura will receive less property tax revenue from the 535 houses ravaged by the Thomas Fire.
  • Ventura can expect lower gasoline sales tax revenue because of trends towards less driving.
  • Unfunded pension costs will increase another 10%-20% next year.
  • The recent rains increased road damage on unrepaired streets. Telegraph, Victoria, Wells, and Thompson all show the effect of the storms.
  • Ventura Water needs an extra $500-$600 million over the next decade for water and wastewater infrastructure. Recent rate increases over the past four years will not cover this shortfall. Water rates will increase again.
  • Legal costs to defend the city against lawsuits filed in the aftermath of the Thomas Fire will come from the General Fund. The unbudgeted expense could result in higher fees.

Where Is The Vision?

There was one tiny glimmer of vision in Neal Andrews’s address. He said, “We [Ventura] are no longer a quaint little beach town. We’re among the top 10% of the largest cities in California.” Mayor Andrews recognizes a truth many of us have known for years. Ventura has urban issues, and we can’t solve urban problems with provincial solutions. We need fresh thinking.

However, Mayor Andrews and the city staff have not shared a future vision. Some may look to a new City Manager to provide a long-term plan. But experience indicates this is wishful thinking.

Rick Cole nearly ruined Ventura financially.

In 2004, the City Council hired Rick Cole. Mr. Cole had a grand urban development plan for Ventura. He spent millions planning to narrow Victoria and make Ventura a “walking community.” His unrealistic thinking nearly ruined Ventura financially. The economic impact will haunt Ventura for decades to come.

Mark Watkins inherited a mess from Rick Cole.

Following Mr. Cole, the City Council hired Mark Watkins. Mr. Watkins did not have the

grandiose vision of Mr. Cole. The City Council employed him as a caretaker. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to overcome the problems left by his predecessor. He inherited budget deficits. He managed those deficits by not hiring more employees. The remaining city staff he inherited stumbled executing his vision. As an example, Mr. Watkins lack of supervision surfaced when his team fumbled Brooks Institute. That mistake cost Ventura taxpayers over $261,000.

The two new members of the City Council may have a vision, but they are unknown and have no experience.

Editors’ Comments

Ventura is struggling. We’re struggling following the Thomas Fire. We’re struggling financially. We see the struggle in the faces of our neighbors. We see it in the faces of people on the street. We read it social media.

If the city is to move forward, it’s up to us to provide that vision. The government does not create jobs or develop business, nor do we want them to. Government (the City) is the last entity you want to create jobs. The government does better to stay out of the way so businesses may thrive.

What Government can do is create an environment that is favorable for business. They can do so by:

  1. Issuing permits faster
  2. Charging competitive fees (compared to other cities in the county)
  3. Creating acceptable zoning that encourages desirable companies to relocate to Ventura
  4. Identifying desirable industries with high paying jobs
  5. Bringing qualifying business owners to Ventura on a personalized tour of the city

Contact your City Councilmember. We need the revenue to offset our growing needs. Demand a plan to attract more business to the area; preferably ones with better than entry-level jobs. Insist the city assist property owners to fill all vacant commercial property. With jobs, revenues will increase. With jobs, crime will decrease. With jobs, Ventura will prosper.

 

Demand a Plan From City Council To Attract More Businesses with Better Than Entry-Level Jobs to Ventura

Below you’ll find the photos of our current City Council. Click on any Councilmember’s photo and you’ll open your email program so you can write directly to that Councilmember.

Let them know what you’re thinking. Tell them what they’re doing right and what they could improve upon. Share your opinion. Not participating in government weakens our democracy because our city government isn’t working for all of us.

Neal Andrews, Mayor

Matt LaVere, Ventura City Council

Matt LaVere, Deputy Mayor

Cheryl Heitmann

Jim Monahan

Erik Nasarenko

Mike Tracy

Christy Weir

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