It may not be 45%, but it’s going to be a figure north of zero, so Crowley Lake sewer users, prepare to flush a few more dollars down the toilet.
During Tuesday night’s meeting of the Hilton Creek Services District (HCSD), the District Board conducted more detailed work on the budget and projections for the next 3-5 years out. The results, however, only further solidify that in terms of rates, it’s just a matter of when and how much.
Some Crowley locals, however, who at first groused about the fee increase, say they’re now more cheesed off at the budget and the process by which certain line items (aka “salaries”) are divined.
In any case, the fee increase is directly related to a shortfall in the operations budget, which for roughly the past five years has run a deficit (currently $83,000) that’s been subsidized by property taxes. With the state of California in its own budget mess, the possibility looms large that it could appropriate those property tax bucks for itself, which would leave the HCSD high and dry … “dry” being especially bad when it comes to handling sewage.
As HCSD Board Chair Steve Shipley recounted, 10 years ago Crowley Lake projected to have been at or near buildout by now. When development stalled, however, the District was still left with a mandate to upgrade and expand the system. It did, but that added expense now means a larger operation with few new hookups to pay in to the kitty.
“In short, we ended up with an SUV and only one person driving,” Shipley analogized.
New connections aren’t up to projections (off at least 30%), meaning up front hookup fees that fund Capital Improvements aren’t what wa anticipated either. And many of the Districts other assets and revenue streams are either dedicated or otherwise restricted in terms of usage.
Close examination of the budget has yielded some savings, but Shipley and the Board were all in agreement that it’s nowhere near enough to prevent a hike, though the overall dicussion didn’t get into specifics as to amount or duration.
Contrary to the outrage expressed when the fee increase (45% phased in over three years) was first mentioned this past December, the focus of some community complaints has now shifted to how to cut employee salaries and expenses. (The District has one full-time employee, 1 part-time employee, as well as a backup operations person.)
“What we object to is a lack of checks and balances,” said Crowley resident Deborah Ray. She went on to assert that the District’s sewage system is “not high maintenance” and asked the Board to bring in an outside expert to cross-check Operations Manager Bob Lavagnino’s assessment of minimum operation requirements. (The Board said it would consider the request.)
She also balked at Lavagnino’s alleged use of the District-supplied truck to drive to other jobs that have nothing to do with HCSD work.
True or not, Shipley says that as far as he knows, since at least last January, Lavagnino has only been working for the District.
The criticism didn’t stop there. Community member Bob Colt said he questioned the number of man-hours spent on accounting. “Processing 300 bills a month is not a 20-hour [a week] job,” he opined. He went on to state his position that, based on his calculations, employee benefits were too high. “At 75 cents on the dollar, there are very few jobs, especially part-time, that give those kinds of numbers. And that’s a significant part of the budget.”
Board member Brad Koehn took issue with assertions from Ray and Colt that the rates were somehow out of line with the rest of the world. “You need to compare apples to apples,” he said. According to statistics compiled by the California Special Districts Association (CSDA), of which the HCSD is a member, Koehn said costs were in line with other districts that have 1-2 employees and a similar number of hookups. “The CSDA comparison is a valuable tool that I don’t think we should discount.”
While Colt teed off on the Board’s accounting practices, Ray had her sights set on Lavagnino, whom she also alleged should be taken to task in an employee evaluation for what she said were flaws/errors in his quarterly reports, which Ray apparently took it upon herself to review.
Shipley thanked them for “throwing light” on the matter, but tempered that by saying he wasn’t going to just react “knee jerk” and replace someone. “Maybe Bob’s duties don’t require as much time, and that’s something we can look into,” he said, referring to ongoing disucussions he and fellow Board member Ted Cortopassi are having with both Lavagnino and Bookkeeper Marianne O’Connor. “We’ll talk with them to see what options can be reached before the Board puts forth its own alternatives.
Shipley was opposed to any cuts involving the District’s backup manager, saying that position is essential.
Ray and Colt both pushed the idea of going to a so-called “zero-based” budget, including the possibility of sending out RFPs (requests for proposals) to find (or at least be able to negotiate) employees at what would amount to cheaper rates. “We don’t want cutbacks,” Ray said. “We want competitive bids.” (Lavagnino’s position, it should be noted, must be filled bys someone with certain state certifications.)
“A number of things have killed us during the last few years,” Shipley explained. “In addition to the whole buildout thing, benefit costs have gone up in a period when property taxes were down.”
He and the Board, as well as O’Connor, allowed they’d be willing to look into alternatives regarding keeping an office in Mammoth. Shipley said the Board would consider relocating O’Connor’s stored records and office gear to the District’s plant location in Crowley. That space was given a facelift within the last three years.
Another concern was budgeting for equipment and line replacement, which will be necessary within the next few years. Shipley also raised the idea of training an apprentice, which he said is a need that may be overdue.
In addition, Koehn and other members of the Board recommended sitting down with Lavagnino to review his four-year outline of capital improvement projects.
No formal action was taken on the fee increase during the April meeting. Look for action by the start of the next fiscal year (July 1).
Editor’s Note: Colt’s “significant other” is Crowley resident Liz Fleming, who is, coincidentally, also an accountant/bookkeeper.