Santa Paula: Stretching Staff to Implement New State Water Policy SB 998

By Sheryl Hamlin

Adding another State mandate to the management of California cities, Sacramento passed SB 998 in 2018 with an effective date of 2/1/2020.

Entitled “Discontinuation of residential water service: urban and community water systems”, the bill mandates new procedures for water shutoffs, late billing and multi-lingual customer service.

Read the text of the law here: SB998 Text

Read the BBKLaw analysis of the bill and its complexities for implementation: Legal Analysis

At the February 4, 2020 Santa Paula City Council Meeting, Finance Director Cristy Ramirez presented an overview of the changes required for the computer billing system, notifications and customer service. The 60 day requirement of SB 998 is particularly tricky to integrate into the existing 30 day billing cycle.

According to the City Attorney, the city must do the following to implement SB 998:The policy must contain the following information:
• A plan for deferred or reduced payments;
• Alternative payment schedules;
• A formal mechanism for a customer to contest or appeal a bill; and
• A telephone number for a customer to contact to discuss options for averting discontinuation of residential service for nonpayment.

In addition to the implementation of the winter water calculation, the new water and sewer rates and the new water and sewer bill, the finance staff is obliged to implement SB998.

Costs added due to SB998 include: translation services, in field appointments with water customers, printing of notices and staff time to administer payments. SB998 requires new reporting to the State Water Board. Department costs TBD.

Does Sacramento consider how such a mandate could affect a small city with limited staff? Where is the League of California Cities when such new mandates are proposed? The bill also leaves the city open to lawsuits if the procedures are not followed. Limon and Jackson voted ‘yes’. Not one council member questioned the amount of staff time required to implement and maintain SB998. Council Member Crosswhite asked about adding more languages. Fortunately the computer system already processes payment arrangements, so Finance Director Ramirez felt this would be the best approach for SB998. The bill also limits disconnect and reconnect fees so staff will assess impact on new water rates.

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