T.O. City Council Approves Water Rate Hikes and Executive Pay Raises at Sept. 26 Meeting

By Kevin Harris

The Thousand Oaks City Council approved water rate hikes and raises for city executives during Tuesday night’s City Council meeting. They also temporarily extended the land lease for a company promising to put an art museum in the heart of the city’s downtown revitalization district. 

Water & Wastewater Rates

Item 8A was a Public Hearing proposing and explaining local water and wastewater rate hikes, to go into effect on January 1, 2018, and remain in effect for two years. A new program was also unveiled, however, to help lower income residents supplement part of their water and wastewater bills as well. The presentation was given by Public Works Director, Jay Spurgin.

Wastewater rates in general will increase by 1 percent per year, for the next two years, while water rates will go up by the same amount… except for imported water pass thru rates, which will increase by 3% per year over the next two years. Spurgin, nor did anyone on city staff, explain what “imported water pass thru” meant, though later in the meeting, Councilman Price indicated that the 1% increase (not the imported water) was to “get the water to your homes.” 

Spurgin explained that the rate increases are needed primarily to help maintain infrastructure assets. He said those are currently about $800 million for wastewater, requiring $5 million per year to maintain, and $500 million for water, costing about $6 million per year to maintain. 

The other related cost to residence is the wastewater connection fee. That is set to increase by a whopping 4.3 percent. This is essentially a one time “buy-in” charge for new homes to connect to the wastewater system. According to Spurgin, Thousand Oaks’ wastewater and water rates are very comparable with the rates of other local municipalities – even lower than many, though the wastewater connection fee is on the higher end of the spectrum. 

The proposed Utility Assistance Program does not add new taxes or raise rates, but rather, it utilizes late payment, and non-payment fees from wastewater and water utility customers. It uses the current SCE CARE program for eligibility, and will offer up to 1,600 wastewater customers a $5 per month credit, and 800 water customers a $10 per month credit. These figures are starting figures, and the program could change down the road. 

Following Spurgin’s presentation, public speakers had a chance to chime in. First up was Colleen Bush, a 35-year Thousand Oaks resident, who opposes the rate hikes, largely due to the tired structure of the rates. 

“We want to maintain the rural character of our old neighborhood, yet the city has penalized our efforts unfairly, setting up a tiered-rate cost system on continued water rate hikes,” she said. Ms. Bush went on to mention that a judge in San Juan Capistrano struck down that city’s tiered rate structure based on California’s Proposition 218 (the voter-approved measure forcing public utilities to charge customers based only on their cost). 

Colleen Bush

Next to speak was Ann Marie, a long time Thousand Oaks resident, who also opposes the rate hikes. Ms. Marie was upset by the possibility that the rate hikes might be related to city staff salaries and benefit packages, which we later found out she believes are exorbitant. But she told the Council that she was initially unable to find any information about her inquiry on the city website… because she was correct. The information she sought was supposed to have been posted, but never was, though she eventually did receive the data with personal help from a staff member. 

Spurgin responded to the speakers’ concerns by first explaining that the city had considered changing back to flat rates for water and wastewater billing, but instead chose to “flatten the tiered rates.” They went from a 22% differential between rates to just a 7.5% differential, which he thought was a fair compromise (though he fell short of explaining the problem with simply going to a flat rate plan).

Spurgin, along with the city attorney, then said that the San Juan Capistrano Case was not about tiered rates, per se’, but instead, that judge reversed the tiered rates because that city was not complying with the terms of Prop. 218. It was basically misapplying the tiered rates and forcing some residents to subsidize others – which is not allowed under Prop. 218. According to Spurgin, that is not happening in Thousand Oaks. 

Before the Council voted on the issue, they shared their final thoughts. Mayor Pro Tem Andrew Fox shared the rest of the Council’s concerns about raising rates on residents, but ultimately believes in the importance of infrastructure to a community. “Water and wastewater is, if not the most important infrastructure to a municipal body, I don’t know what is. And so I’m going to move for the recommendations,” he said. 

Council Member Joel Price also felt he had no choice but to support the rate hikes. “The majority of rate increases being proposed tonight are the imported water fees,” he said. “It’s three percent. It costs 1% to get the water to your homes. While I wouldn’t raise rates if it wasn’t necessary, I find myself where I have to vote in favor of this,” he added. 

Council Member Rob McCoy, however, was the lone voice of dissent. “I don’t feel as though the rate increase is inappropriate,” he told the Council and audience members. “However, I do struggle with the tier-level pricing. I just don’t feel as though that’s fair to property owners. I’ll be voting no,” he said. 

The Council vote was 4-1, in favor of the proposed rate hikes. 

Pay Raises for City Manager / City Attorney

Item 12 (A & B) was listed as “Council Issues,” and consisted of amending the employment agreements for City Manager Andrew Powers, and City Attorney Tracy Noonan. 

Andrew Powers

 

Tracy Noonan

If approved, the raises will be retroactive, and take effect on July 1, 2017. For Powers, who was voted in as permanent City Manager (from Interim City Manager) in January, 2017 by the Council, his annual salary will jump from $230,772 to $244,618, plus a $75 per month cell phone stipend. It should be noted that Powers declined a pay raise at the beginning of 2017. 

Noonan’s annual salary will jump from $243,097 to $251,606. 

During the Public Speakers session, Ann Marie spoke again (she spoke during the water rates issue). She spoke passionately about what she considers the excessive nature of city staff pay and benefits in Thousand Oaks, and said it’s not helping the city. She proceeded to read off a list of staff employment benefits, and by any reasonable standard, they could be described as excessive. She specified that Public Works Director Jay Spurgins’ salary is $15,700 a month. 

“I’m urging you,” she told the Council.” “STOP! STOP! STOP! They don’t need more!” 

Ann Marie

During the Council’s rebuttal, several Council members tried to explain why upper staff executives make the salaries that they do. Mayor Pro Tem Fox offered the following:

The salaries. The Council compares those to other like cities. The market is what the market is. While I can understand the level of frustration, it’s consistent with virtually every other municipal city in the state. It’s reality. These are high salaries, but they’re for high level executives. As Mr. MsCoy points out, they’re responsible for over a billion dollar operation.”

The motions for the pay raises passed unanimously for both positions. 

Short Term Lease Extension Helps Downtown Revitalization Plans

Item 9A was a Department Report authorizing the City Manager to extend the lease terms to Westside Properties/California Museum of Art Thousand Oaks (CMATO), to include a 90-day notification for termination. Their current lease on their five properties, which all lie next to the Civic Arts Plaza, expires on October 13, 2017. 

The Council is highly supportive of CMATO, as a modern art museum at that location fits in nicely with their downtown revitalization plans, which is why they are open to giving them a little more time to get going on their project for the space, with is largely going unused now. 

Council Member Al Adam believes the property is crucial to the downtown revitalization plan. “It will connect both the East and the West side pieces of property with whatever’s put on there, which is very important,” he explained. “And what tonight’s vote will do, is it will allow us to consider our options for the property, and the best possible use. So I will certainly support the motion,” he added. 

The motion passed unanimously. 

The next Thousand Oaks City Council Meeting will be on Tuesday, October 10, 2017, at 6:00 pm. To access the meeting agenda, or to watch the video of the meeting, please go to the following URL, then scroll down and click on “City Council:” http://www.toaks.org/departments/city-manager-s-office/watch-totv/past-meeting-videos.

 

Kevin Harris

Kevin Harris is a reporter, editor and journalist, previous President of Cal State Northridge’s Society of Professional Journalists having worked for the LA Times and Newhall Signal. He is now also a Realtor and videographer, and lives with his two children in Thousand Oaks. 


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William Hicks
William Hicks
3 years ago

In a time where people are concerned about “affordable housing,” isn’t it questionable to charge a high connection fee?

Although I don’t believe it has been totally explained, in theory, I understand minor increases in rates in order to maintain our water distribution system. Lets hope that this is not just a way to give employer/employee raises in pay.