The future of San Juan Bautista's water system was up for discussion at the July 21 city council meeting, with three agenda items focused on financing operations, improvements, testing, and fines stemming from high nitrates in the municipal supply.
The council first approved a resolution to accept a rate study submitted by Bartle Wells. The study gave multiple recommendations for the future of rates, but the underlying basis was a need to eliminate the tiered rates which currently exist. No rate changes took effect, but the council's unanimous vote moved to accept and review the study.
As for the particulars of future rate changes, City Manager Roger Grimsley told BenitoLink, "That's something they'll decide at the public hearing that'll be in September." The September meeting to take community input and will have the intent of fixing a rate that will then be followed by a 45-day review period.
During the meeting, Grimsley said that a key recommendation of the study was, "the tiered rate, what we call the variable rate, be eliminated and replaced by a uniform user rate."
"We are, as always with the water system, in a pretty tough spot," said Councilman Chris Martorana. "The state’s supreme court has eliminated our ability to use a tiered structure to incentivize people to use less water."
Regarding requirements of future rates, Grimsley said, "The user rate has to generate necessary revenues for not only the operation and the capital improvement, but the debt service for our loan, that still has 29 years to go." Among the capital improvements is the need for a new well within the next year.
"On top of that we’re being fined monthly," noted Martorana. "We're in excess of $100,000 in fines at this point."
Among the numerous options shown, Grimsley said he recommended the study's call for a three percent maximum rate adjustment, as well as eliminating the tiered rate and implementing a 5.64 cents per thousand gallon fee. He noted, "Basic rates would increase by $1.17 per month for the average user."
While the standardization of rates would make things uniform, the changes to users would not be. Grimsley explained, "By eliminating those tiers and coming to one composite rate, the people who use less are going to be paying a higher rate, and the people on the high end will increase at a lesser rate."
"We just have to do this," said Martorana before the unanimous vote to accept the study. "Our backs are against the wall. We're going to have to stand up and pay for this stuff."
"We should've been raising these rates and getting them in line," said Councilman Tony Boch, echoing Martorana's comment about the need to get to work on changing the system. "If you want water and sewer, you've got to start paying for it, and that’s all we can do." He added, "We've got to get these projects finished. We've got to get that new well."
Councilman Jim West summarized the overall division of the problem into two areas, saying, "We have to get clean water in and dirty water out. And we have the political problem of the previous city council that did not want to raise rates, as they should have then, because it was not the astute political thing to do." He added, "These are hard decisions. This is going to cost people a lot of money."
Boch made the motion to accept the study, while West seconded. No members of the public were present to comment on the agenda items, a point the council recognized before moving on.
The next water-related item was a request to extend a settlement agreement State Water Resources Control Board in regard to the water reclamation project.
"They gave us until July 30th, the end of this month, to respond to it," Grimsley told BenitoLink. He explained the timeline was too short, and that the city has asked for an additional 30 days, "so we have time to frame our settlement."
In explaining the matter to the council, Grimsley said, "You have to adhere to monitoring well installation and testing requirements. That’s a little stifling, and very expensive, for a little town of 1,830 people and the amount of 200,000 gallons." He said the "astronomical" cost would not be so impactful to a larger town. "We've applied for have them reduce the requirements and be a little more reasonable in that application. If they deny us, then we'll have to foot the bill."
Grimsley went on to note, "We're not averse to testing (the water). We just want to have them reduce it to where it’s a little more pragmatic and affordable for our situation."
The final action item on the agenda was to consider an action plan and compliance schedule for improvements to the water system with the State Water Resources Control Board, Drinking Water Division.
Grimsley, whose contract was amended by the council during the meeting to reflect a 3.75 percent raise — bringing his annual pay to $69,000 — told BenitoLink, "This is where we have to come up with what is our timeframe to get a new well going, get it online, test it, making sure that we can provide good, potable water to the citizens. That includes a number of other items: Acquisition of the sites, construction, and testing and getting all the infrastructure to where it's all online. It's still in review. I have to submit it at the end of this month and that's why I asked for 30 days. I'm balancing three of these critical things in the next ten days and it's going to be tough."
Low-Power FM station support sought
The council also directed staff to put together a letter to support the formation of a low-power FM radio station with an antenna in Hollister. Bob Reid came forward to present the history of the radio project.
"Having a vehicle to reflect the community back to itself is essential to elevating quality of life," Reid told BenitoLink.
With the change in management in a partner organization — the Community Media Access Partnership (CMAP) — Reid said funding for the proejct is threatened, and a solution is needed before the Aug. 21 deadline, which Reid aims to extend.
"We realized there was going to be a crunch but we were aware it's possible to apply for an extension," Reid said. "But you have to demonstrate you have made progress." Community assistance is needed, with the council's letter being a contribution to that effort.
Reid explained about funding that it takes $6,000 to hook a laptop up to a low power FM station, and another $20,000 to build a studio to get the station on-air.
"We would like to have the opportunity to do this," Reid said. "As the time is ticking away, we want to make sure we don't let the opportunity go by wthout doing everything we could do to salvage this project."
Staff reports included Hollister Interim Fire Chief Bill Garringer summarizing the busy month for firefighters. Regarding Independence Day incidents, he said, "We were stretched pretty thin to answer all the calls. We are coming up with a plan for next year." One piece of the plan could include "moving the rally off the 4th of July weekend. That would allow both us and the PD to dedicate more poeple to the fireworks issue separate from the rally itself."