Cambria’s difficult and upsetting process of raising utilities rates has run its course, ending with an unsuccessful Proposition 218 protest. The new rate structure goes into effect with the July 2022 billing cycle.
Increasing rates for the utility services require the Cambria Community Services District to follow concrete legal steps in the preparation, presentation, discussion, and approval of increases. It falls to the ratepayers to accept or reject the increases approved by the Board of Directors.
A Simple View
Over the past years, critical infrastructure, maintenance, and plant upgrades have been a challenge, with sufficient funding levels always difficult to obtain. Previous rate increases have allowed the water and wastewater operations to keep running, though each addition came with the caveat that it will not be enough to do all that needs doing.
The District contracted an outside firm, Bartle Wells Associates, to conduct a rate study. They looked at current and projected costs, defined by the District, and at the revenue available to support those needs. The rates need to meet operating expenses and cover the costs to finance more extensive infrastructure programs, particularly in the Wastewater Treatment enterprise.
The Resources and Infrastructure Committee did much of the heavy lifting. They worked with District staff and Project teams from PGE to drill deeply into the details, identify projects, build cost models, design and propose project approaches, and reprioritize tasks to develop a solid set of projects and the numbers that went along with them.
The Finance Committee kept pace, adding additional expert eyes to the process.
These citizen-staffed committees, formed after many rounds of public demand for more community involvement in the governing process, provided review and input on issues and opportunities within their respective charters. Each committee’s range of experience and expertise added richness to the inputs and outcomes. Their work provided additional opportunities for residents and ratepayers to have insight and input into the decision-making process.
District Finance Leader Pam Duffield was central to all the activity. Her rational voice and deep knowledge kept everyone on track and, most importantly, reading from the same financial fact sheets.
The output from these teams was foundational in providing Bartle Wells with the information needed to construct accurate and fair rate hike proposals.
Bartle Wells proposed three years of increases for the Water and Wastewater funds. A third category – inflationary adjustments – would allow further increases under the Proposition 218 rules. These increases would be available in years four and five.
|Proposed Water Rate Increases||Proposed Sewer Rate Increases||Proposed Inflationary Pass-Through Rate Adjustments (Years 4 & 5)|
|6% effective 7/1/2022||7.5% effective 7/1/2022||TBD* effective 7/1/2025|
|6% effective 7/1/2023||7.5% effective 7/1/2023||TBD* effective 7/1/2026|
|6% effective 7/1/2024||7.5% effective 7/1/2024|
Ratepayers have the right to submit a protest against any proposed increases. A total of 50% plus one protest is needed to defeat the increases. The number of ratepayers or property owners responsible for paying the utility bill determines the actual numbers.
There were 479 valid protests. The spirited campaign fell far short of the required number.
On May 24, Board Secretary Leah Reedall responded to my initial Public Records Request and followed up, as promised, with this additional detail on June 2.
“In response to your May 24, 2022, request for a breakout count of protests by enterprise category, along with the number needed for the Proposition 218 protest to be successful, the following is the informal count:
|Enterprise||Protest Count||Required Count|
This tally is not a tabulated, validated count of protests, but rather an informal count made by me and, for accountability, a department manager.” Leah Reedall, June 2, 2022.
Percentage of the required number for successful protests:
- Water – 24.35%
- Wastewater – 24.33%
- Inflationary Adjustments – 24.59%
Extrapolating that to the total number of eligible protesters tells a bigger story.
- Water – 12.13%
- Wastewater – 13.42%
- Inflationary Adjustments – 12.30%
So, nearly 88% of ratepayers did not protest the hikes.
Whether seen as a victory or a loss, my sense is there were a few very critical reasons ratepayers overwhelmingly allowed for the rates to go forward.
The process took place openly across multiple meetings, with the information and discussion available for all interested parties to review and challenge. The articulated need for the rate hike was supported by data and vetted over months by the District staff, Board, and standing committees.
The CCSD Board, under the leadership of President Donn Howell, did an excellent job of presenting the facts around the need for the increases. Multiple articles from Board members/Committee Chairs were published in the online community news publication (www.cambriaca.org) and clearly and succinctly addressed every aspect of the increases. This series provided additional information to help the public understand the District’s perspective on why rate increases are needed. I reached out to the Editor/Publisher of cambriaca.org for data collected on the articles, but they cannot currently track to that level. “To your question: unfortunately, we cannot separate local/community “hits” from all other out-of-town hits. This is a particular problem now that we are using the Newspack platform that distributes the cambriaca globally.” John Rohrbaugh, May 28, 2022
The CCSD website was well-stocked with information on the Proposition 218 process, and data shows that a relatively small number of visitors took advantage of that resource. Stats provided by District Analyst Haley Dodson on June 3, 2022, reflect that:
Warts and All
All of the committees and Board’s work took place in full public view. For as much of the public that chose to participate. It was all out there, warts and all. Mistakes were made, identified, and rectified. Intense public scrutiny and involvement were vital in ensuring issues were adequately addressed.
There is a long-held, oft-repeated belief that the CCSD is not “Transparent.” I find this puzzling. My personal experience is that the access to meetings, staff, leadership, and Board members is reasonable, even exemplary. The District website is information-rich, and the openness of staff and Board members to engage with the public is very good.
Board Leadership – Great Staff Work – Rigorous Committee Work – Aggressive Community Outreach – Vigorous Community Involvement
My expectations are, I believe, reasonable. I do not expect every action, engagement, issue, or discussion to be fed directly into my inbox. Nor do I wish every legal or personnel issue to be disclosed before resolution. As a citizen, it is my responsibility to determine the level of effort I need to exert to feel comfortable with my level of participation.
It would be wonderful to have every issue broken down to the simplest explanation and tailored to my personal preference, no matter how complex or fluid. That is an unrealistic expectation.
It would be lovely if our community would take a few beats, breathe deeply, and examine our approach to dealing with the people – yes, people – who we elect, hire and depend on to keep this challenging District running in these extraordinary times. Perhaps we might substitute a bit of kindness for hostility. Gee whiz, maybe this big defeat might mean many more people see things in a different light. Would it hurt to listen and maybe adjust? It isn’t the passion, the faith, or the cause that is in question. It is how we fight. To Each, His Dulcinea, I say.
Donna Ross said:
Thank you for this careful analysis. We lived in Cambria for almost 25 years — and we loved every minute, except for the constant bickering by a small minority, who refuse to face reality.
Margaret Wilder said:
Thank you. We do pay a price for paradise. Thankfully, we have a choice!