Government / Politics

SJB City Council OK’s higher water and sewer rates

San Juan Bautista City Council reacts to San Juan Capistrano tiered water rates ruling; also discusses smaller lots for affordable housing

The San Juan Bautista City Council moved to consider new ordinances that will hike water and sewer services rates over a five-year period and considered amendments to zoning development standards after long deliberations at its Aug. 18 regular meeting.

The still-to-be-finalized ordinance for water and sewer services rates is the city’s response to the June ruling on San Juan Capistrano’s tiered water rates, which were ruled unconstitutional because government fees are required to match service costs. Some consider the ruling as an aftermath of the Governor’s tough stance on water conservation.

Like some cities, San Juan Bautista is anticipating lawsuits against its own tiered rates which may be construed illegal. This was expressed by Councilman Tony Boch.

City Manager Roger Grimsley introduced financial analyst Matthew Griffith to the Council. His agency, Bartle Wells Associates, worked on a study of the city’s water finances.

Griffith said, based on the San Juan Capistrano ruling and the study, San Juan Bautista “must re-do the city’s water rates.” He proposed to do it by looking both at the uniform rate and the increases for the next five years.

The discussion that followed revealed more of the city’s water problems, including: $1.8 million that the Water and Sewer Enterprise funds ate out of the General Fund, high nitrite levels causing one out of two wells to be shut down, the city’s hard water, access to drinkable water and an inefficient system for collecting fees.

Former council member Jolene Cosio commented, “We are targeting the wrong demographics to pay this. Some (who use San Juan Bautista supplied water) don’t even have meters. Rates were just lowered recently. We must look elsewhere.”

She argued that “a house can use up to 3,000 gallons in a month. The current rate is $131.93 a month. It can go up to $145 a month in the first year. This will be drastic for those with fixed income.”

It was revealed that actual delinquency was down to 12 percent from a previous rate of 35 percent. Grimsley said the city puts "about 30 shut-off notices (as door hangers) every month.”

Mayor Robert Lund replied that the city is working with low-income residents. He said that illegal hook-ups in some areas have been caught and new processes were being explored for fee collection.

San Juan resident John Freeman said some cities such as Hollister and San Diego have tiered water rates but “income is down because of water reduction. You must raise (the fee) by one percent as income falls.”

Vice Mayor Rick Edge observed that a “(water) rate study needs to be done every five years. Right now, water systems are paying more but receiving less because of conservation. But in other cities like Santa Clara and Hollister (the rates) are higher. Unfortunately, (unlike them) we have to watch the money – how it comes in and how we spread it out.”

Councilman Chris Martorana said the city has been struggling with the (water) problem for a long time and that the San Juan Capistrano (ruling) is not pleasant but “we have no choice.”

Boch said, “My biggest fear is that a lawyer might sue us because we have a tiered system. There are people who do that. We’re too small with not enough money to fight these people. Even if we have $150,000 just to fight this, I won’t take a chance. I say let’s bite the bullet and take it out of tier.”

Councilman Jim West added, “This is not a popular decision. I’ll kick the can, too. I have a lot of money (that I put) on my house. I have to worry about fixed income (residents). It’s no fault of their own and we must fix the problem.”

Amendments to zoning standards

Grimsley took the lead in the discussions about the ordinance to amend zoning standards by encouraging the council to re-think the R-1 single family residential zoning district for land use. He suggested that the standard R-1 lot area of 7,200 square feet be cut down from 5,000 to 6,000 smaller lots and integrated into developments. He proposed that “subdivisions of 20 lots of (units with) 5,000 square feet lots will work.”

He said the flexibility would allow design diversity (“different architectures, not all of them boxes”) into homes. He added that this would also encourage young families and first-time buyers to buy into the entry-level housing, then move on to bigger homes as they grow.

Some problems were revealed when discussion on amendments to zoning standards began.

Martorana commented on the amendments “alleviating problems on ratio of units, making 20 percent more available (to homebuyers).” He also said “the developers are not doing anything” and asked for ways to encourage rental housing in the city.

Grimsley pointed out “convolution of frontage.” Space-saving necessity can sometimes undo the neat, uniformed look of houses, causing entrances and exits to be different in one unit.

Boch cautioned about re-defining zone standards and remarked, “Hollister made a mistake with two acres and they called it comfortable housing.”

West said he liked living in San Juan Bautista even if “some of us have small houses with big parking lots.”

Edge agreed, “There are no postage stamp houses in San Juan Bautista.”

Burglaries in vehicles trending

Planning Commissioner/Historic Resources Board Commissioner Eric Gredassoff reported five cases of burglaries inside vehicles mostly on Monterey and Third streets in April. He said this included a white vehicle and the deputy sheriff’s car.

He said that the most reliable report revealed that at about 6 p.m., two males with boxes got into a white Ford Explorer. The vehicle’s license plates from Santa Barbara did not match the registration. The victim reported that CDs and an iPod were among the stolen items. She departed from her routine and closed her car without removing her electronics.

In another incident, suspects got into the trunk of a locked car, shut off its lights, opened the sunroof and made off with the iPod from the console and some 4th of July decorations.

Gredassoff told the council that in October, signatures for a Neighborhood Watch group will be collected at the Luck Museum (along Monterey at Second and Third streets). The campaign will also be promoted through social media.

Action on other items

  • The council approved a compliance order “for providing reliable potable water and two wells all the way to 2017,” Grimsley said, adding that he also said he will check on the creek discharge and come up with a plan to eliminate violations.
  • The council moved to continue for next meeting the selection of a city volunteer to be recognized at Philanthropy Day (November 12).
  • Recruitment for the Youth Committee will go on as requested by the Strategic Plan Committee from various schools. Freeman revealed that of the six members, one moved to Hollister with his parents.
  • The council agreed to replace Public Works’ worn out GMC Jimmy with a GMC diesel. But since the nearest diesel pump is in Hollister, the council will also look into a containment vessel for diesel, too.
  • The council decided that fees must be paid for 11 hook-ups from sewer services at the 1020 Mission Vineyard Road property. The two buildings at the site were built in 1998 and 2001 with individual connections. West said, “This is a commercial building. I don’t see why we should discount it. Let’s not fix this for commercial operation.” Boch agreed, “This is not our problem. Can’t see how we can cut some slack. The city does not owe them.”
  • The council agreed to authorize water service connection and to the annexation agreement for the property owned by Cheryll Vosburgh. She bought the property last year with the intention of building two houses for her daughter and for herself and husband. The plans for the 7.75 parcel lot have been filed in the County. No high level of nitrite was detected but hard water remains in the property. Since she bought in Zone 6, there is no water vein. The City agreed to water service with an eight inch line pipe, pending processing from Labco,
  • The council accepted the recommendation from Freeman to move to next meeting the change in membership to the Strategic Planning Committee. The key person is on leave of absence and a response is expected in three weeks.
  • The council authorized receipt of the engineering proposal for site grade work at Pellet Plant, the number three well site. City Attorney Debbie Mall related that “the State Water Control Board said the city qualified as a small city with hardship.”
  • The council authorized a reimbursement agreement for the Dadwal fueling station at the corner of The Alameda. Dadwal pledged $200,000 when he starts construction. Two other projects are scheduled on the site and may impact the city with $39,000 in road work as a result of the new structures. Mall recommended that the language in the agreement be tweaked to indicate that “$240,000” be struck out totally to avoid confusion, that the city shall be reimbursed first for $40,000, and that the terms will be for 10 years. Dadwal renegotiated for 15 years. The Council agreed, “We need to get this in front of the judge.”
  • The council moved to continue to its next meeting discussion on whether the city will take part in a Memorandum of Understanding for AMBAG’s Regional Orthophotography Project. Martorana explained that the project hopes to correct distorted satellite photos. A $1,000 fee is required for participation.

Harvey Barkin

Harvey Barkin is a Freelance Journalist and Technical Writer. His stories have appeared in various media.