A split Turlock City Council endorsed a water rate increase Tuesday night, after a meager turnout in a citywide election on the rate hike.
The rate hike will see monthly water bills nearly double by 2019 for the average household, from $24 to $47. The average Turlocker will see his or her monthly bill increase by roughly $4 at each of six dates: July 1, Jan. 1 2015, then every July 1 thereafter through 2019.
The ordinance amendment will come back for a final reading – and final vote – on April 8. That vote will be largely ceremonial; votes during final readings seldom differ from those to introduce ordinances.
Just 605 residents turned in ballots opposing the water rate increase, following a nearly two-month long Proposition 218 voting process. That’s far less than the 8,771 “No” votes needed to stop the rate increase.
Despite the low turnout, the Turlock City Council remained divided on the rate hike. A 3-2 majority comprised of Turlock Mayor John Lazar and City Councilmembers Forrest White and Steven Nascimento ultimately approved the rate increase.
Lazar called it a “brave” vote. All three said the time for action is now, regardless of any political consequences, as Turlock’s water fund is losing money and could be unable to meet future demands.
"We're at the point where we need to step up and make the improvements,” White said. “I don't want to stand in front of you in six months and tell any of you that you don't have water, or you're using bottled water. Because that could happen. … I don't want to be that city."
Councilmembers Bill DeHart and Amy Bublak opposed the measure, arguing the rate hike would disproportionately affect seniors, veterans, and the disabled.
“We do have folks on fixed income here in town and, oh, by the way, it's a fairly good number of them,” DeHart said. “… This does represent an impact to those who are on limited income or fixed income.”
While DeHart said Turlock needs to invest in its drinking water infrastructure, he disagreed with the rate structure. He believed Turlock should adopt a tiered structure, charging exponentially more to high-volume users to save money for average households.
A tiered system could also result in additional water conservation. Planners forecast just a 10 percent reduction of usage in the new plan, where account holders will no longer receive a free water allotment and will instead pay a flat rate for each 1,000 gallons of water used.
Bublak was concerned with both the projects which will be funded by the increase, which would extend the life of Turlock’s groundwater system, and the rate structure.
“I don’t think we, as leaders, are actually solving the problem at this time,” Bublak said.
Bublak called for the establishment of two new committees, one to develop ways to help those on fixed incomes to pay for the rate increase, and a second to study drought issues. Neither were discussed further.
Councilmembers, Audience Question Outreach Campaign
Both Bublak and DeHart expressed concern that the low voter turnout came due to a lack of public outreach. Just 2.5 percent of those with ballots voiced their opposition to the rate hike.
DeHart said he doesn’t believe Turlockers are not interested in the rate hike. Instead, he thinks they simply didn’t realize what was happening.
“I seriously question whether or not we really did a good enough job at informing the citizenry of what we were proposing on a widespread basis,” DeHart said.
Bublak also advocated “slowing down,” and reaching out more to the community. She suggested using modern technology to better inform the populace, leading to a November ballot measure.
But city staff said the notification process went above and beyond what was required under state law.
“I think the whole process was adequate,” Lazar said.
More than 24,000 ballots were sent out to Turlock property owners, account holders, and renters, Turlock city staff said. Per state law Turlock only needed to issue about 18,000 ballots, but opted to send extra ballots to anyone potentially affected. Some audience members claimed they did not receive the ballots.
Notifications were posted in local newspapers. And three sparsely-attended workshops were held on Feb. 19.
Turlock Municipal Services Director Michael Cooke said that he received about 20 phone calls about the rate increase. Those calls and the 605 votes show the outreach effort worked, he said, and that people were “paying attention.” He said the low turnout was not atypical for a Prop 218 vote in a city of Turlock’s size.
Residents Voice Opposition
From a nearly-packed City Hall, 13 people stood up to comment Tuesday night. None spoke in favor of the measure.
Some described the rate increases as “death by a thousand cuts.”
“Where do they stop?” asked Turlocker Manuel Drummond, noting he would likely have to raise rates for his renters. “Every time I open the bill, there's a little bit more.”
Others derisively referred to water meters as “cash registers” in their front yards, or voiced concern with the sheer magnitude of the increases.
“They are 100 percent increases,” said Turlocker Mike Theis. “My wages have not increased 100 percent.”
And several speakers said that even if rates go up, Turlock’s problems won’t be solved.
“I don't see an endgame here,” said Turlocker Gregory Hook. “I see rates going up, but I don't see answers.”
Increase Comes as Water Fund Falters
The rate increase is needed, Cooke said, to provide adequate revenues for Turlock’s water fund. That fund is currently running a deficit, losing between $500,000 and $1.2 million a year despite more than $1 million in cutbacks.
The deficit traces back to 2011, when the City of Turlock adopted state-mandated water meters for all Turlock homes. At the time Cooke warned the Turlock City Council that revenues would fall sharply – nearly 20 percent – but councilmembers at the time voted down a rate hike.
Nascimento said that the “considerable” rate increases now come only because the council refused to take action and approve a modest rate hike at that time.
"No one wants to be the bad guy and do anything, but we're elected to lead … and make tough decisions on the behalf of the community," Nascimento said.
Turlockers currently pay less for water than they did in 2008, when bills averaged $31.50. Today, the average household pays a monthly bill of $24.05, a rate that has remained constant since 2011.
Though the average Turlock homeowner will likely pay $47 per month in 2019, rates will still compare favorably with surrounding communities. In 2015, the average Turlock water bill will be cheaper than those in Merced, Ceres or Modesto.
Cooke noted that the rate increases will not be automatic. The Turlock City Council will review each increase as it comes, and may raise rates up to – but not over – the maximum amount authorized in the ordinance.
“You have a chance to check these rates to make sure they are appropriate for our needs,” Cooke said.
All revenues will go directly to a water enterprise fund. The money may not be used for any purpose other than to benefit the city water system, Cooke said, and the water system needs it.
“We have a number of well sites that are struggling to meet the state and federal standards for drinking water,” Cooke said.
The increased rates would pay for wellhead treatment in the coming years, at a cost of $1.5 million per well, plus ongoing operating costs. Such treatment could allow Turlock to continue using groundwater despite declining quality.
But the rates would not fund a permanent solution to Turlock’s drinking water problem – a long-discussed Surface Water Treatment Plant. That plant, which would treat Tuolumne River water purchased from the Turlock Irrigation District, has been in planning since the 1980s and would likely cost more than $100 million.
Funding such a plant would require a further increase in water rates.
“Do the cities know that they need water?” White asked. “Yes. Is this going to solve the problem? No, but it will keep the water fund alive.”
Some audience members said the city must do more regionally, working to curb groundwater pumping in eastern Stanislaus County which is draining Turlock’s aquifer. A few put stock in a new county water commission, while others derided the board as made up of the same leaders who allowed the groundwater to be “stolen” in the first place.
“It’s like putting the fox to guard the henhouse,” said Turlocker Ed Friedberg.