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City Council, advisory bodies examine Paso’s water campaign

Posted: Thursday, Jun 19th, 2008

Water — and getting out the accurate facts about it — was the focus of a special meeting held on Wednesday by the Paso Robles City Council and its advisory bodies on a newly-launched public education campaign.

Its purpose was for the City Council and members of the city’s advisory bodies to receive information on the campaign, initiated to provide ongoing, fact-based information on the city’s water system, water project updates and to outline the advisory members’ role in educating the community about its water resources.

In a letter, Mayor Frank Mecham wrote that, “As a citizen, it is important that you understand how the delivery of this essential resource will be provided to you today and into the future.”

According to city officials, the city is facing a significant challenge in disseminating accurate facts to the public on its water resources and water use rates. The City Council will consider a new water rate structure on July 1 in anticipation of 4,000 acre-feet per year of water the city will receive beginning July 2010. The water will be a safe, clean and reliable source, officials said.

The first 4,000 acre-feet per year of Nacimiento water will be paid for through development fees and water customers. Thousands more acre-feet per year might need to be secured in the future and would be paid for through development fees–not user fees, according to city officials.

Mecham urged the advisory bodies to stay apprised of vital community issues affecting the city’s overall health and welfare and wrote that they have “an important role to play in educating the community at large,” through providing factual information and directing the community to resources for answers to their questions.

“This community has always wanted to be in charge of its own destiny,” he said. “We need to own our own water. It’s the most vital resource that we have.”

At Wednesday’s meeting, the public posed numerous questions about the new rate. One came from Greg Haas, who asked about the implications of general plan buildout changes.

City Manager Jim App said that, though not a simple task, a calculation could be made if the buildout were to change. He said new development would pay for additional acre-feet beyond the secured 4,000 acre-feet Paso Robles is geared to receive in 2010.

The city is considering quadrupling its base use water rates over the next five years, officials said. In 2007, a proposed water rate ordinance was on the table establishing a consumption-based water rate fee structure. Instead of adopting it, the council chose to retain a third party, independent expert to comprehensively review the water rates and establish a rate structure that would generate funds to address planned water resource and system operations in a water user rate study.

The results of that study are expected this summer.

Under the current structure adopted in 2004, water rates had a flat fee increase from $12 to $18 a month in February and will increase to $24 a month in July. Those rates could actually be higher depending on the results of the study, city officials have said. New connection fees will also increase.

Planning Commissioner Tom Flynn asked how the rates might change in the future and who would foot the bill if the city so desired to pursue additional acre-feet of Nacimiento water beyond 4,000 acre-feet.

“Is this quadrupling of the rates a fallacy?” he asked.

App said that additional water beyond the initial 4,000-acre feet per year would be paid for through new development.

City officials encouraged the public to visit a newly-developed Web site, www.pasorobleswaterproject.com, that focuses on Paso Robles water issues and to contribute to its online blog. Mobile computer stations have been set up at Centennial Park, the Paso Robles Senior Citizens Center and Paso Robles Library.

Our City, Our Water

A grassroots effort has formed as part of the city’s effort to disseminate public information on the city’s current water situation. It’s gathering a list of supporters.

Former Paso Robles Police Department Chief Dennis Cassidy and former Library and Recreation Services director Barbara Partridge are co-chairs of the effort, titled, “Our City, Our Water: A Task Force for the Future.” They spoke during public comment on Wednesday, urging the public to stay involved and educate themselves about the true reality of the water situation.

A group opposing the rate increase known as Concerned Citizens of Paso Robles, meanwhile, has formed and is lead by vocal opponent John Borst, who urged the council to consider adding links to its Web site, www.paso218.org, from the www.pasorobleswaterproject.com site, among other things.

At the meeting, Partridge described the group’s effort as a “call to arms,” drawing a parallel to the 2003 San Simeon Earthquake, where the community banded together to rebuild the city.

Both Partridge and Cassidy spoke about the potential loss in city services and subsequent quality of life issues that may arise if the city were forced to dip into its general fund to cover the cost of the Nacimiento Water Project — currently totaling $6.8 million in combined annual debt obligation and estimated share in system operations.

According to city officials, if residents don’t end up paying for water as they use it, general tax revenues must be redirected from other city services to cover the cost.

Partridge said the city, its city officials, past and current city councils have worked hard to strive for the kind of quality of life that so many have grown accustomed to.

“We need this water,” she said during public comment. “And we need to say, ‘Yes, we support the council’s decision.’ If we don’t say, ‘Yes,’ we still get Nacimiento water. It’s time for us to rise up now and back the City Council and pay our fair share for water.”

While the public will have the chance to weigh in on the proposed rate structure, new rates must be in some way be affected to meet the cost of improvements, according to city officials. The city is contracted and committed to the project with debt payments due beginning July 2010, officials said.

Cassidy shared his experiences with budget woes that occurred during the late 1980s and into the early 1990s both locally and at the state level, which forced the PRPD to initiate a hiring freeze, among other things. He warned the public that similar challenges are being experienced now but perhaps at a greater scale. Since roughly 85 percent of departmental budgets are dedicated to salaries and benefits, a quality of life exists now that could be damaged if the city were forced to dip into its general fund to cover the cost of the Nacimiento Water Project, he said.

“We have the best community in this county,” he said. “And it’s not a time to go backwards, it’s time to maintain what we’ve developed.”

The committee will meet Wednesday, June 25 at noon at the Paderewski Room of the Paso Robles Inn. The public is invited to attend.

For more information, visit www.pasorobleswaterproject.com.

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