Want to know what it’s like to have your sewer system shut down? Well, neither does the Hilton Creek Community Services District. And they have no intention of finding out, unanimously passing a long labored on, much discussed fee increase Tuesday evening that will hopefully allow them to catch up on covering operating costs.
The HCCSD held the last public hearing to air final public comments, which were quite civil compared to fiery sessions in past meetings, before voting on the hike, which raises fees 15 percent annually for the next three years. That adds up to roughly an extra $5 per month for Hilton Creek customers. The district has been living, according to Board of Directors Chair Steve Shipley, “paycheck to paycheck, with no insurance, hoping we don’t get sick.”
Following a sizeable system upgrade several years ago mandated by the Lahontan Water District, which has jurisdiction over HCCSD, the district was left operating a larger facility, hoping for new development-driven hookups (roughly 200-250) that have yet to be realized. Backfilling using property taxes was employed, but with the state aiming to “borrow” much of those taxes from special districts, depending on them is problematic at best.
Declining assessed property value has also pointed towards lessening amounts of usable taxes. “Even with the fee increase, will we still come up short? Maybe,” Shipley stated. “If we don’t do this we could be in worse shape and then have to consider enacting a special assessment.”
The district still faces challenges meeting its capital expenses. With no excess property taxes to roll over, the account for equipment and maintenance expenses is running at levels far lower than the Board and District Operations Manager Bob Lavagnino would like to see.
Small, rural special districts such as Hilton Creek typically run on tight budgets and scramble to meet operational standards and mandated compliance while still staying on budget. In Hilton Creek’s case, costs have gone up — electricity costs for the pump station and sewer facility are up more than 30 percent in the past few years, and a backup employee for Lavagnino was recently required to be hired — while revenues stagnated or declined.
“Do we let the power company just throw the switch and turn out the lights?” Board member Kitty Van Stelle asked rhetorically. “You can cut the power and turn off the water [to business and residences], but that sewer system will never be shut down. It can’t.”
Board members pointed to the amount of time spent (at least 20 months) working on the increase. The Board maintained it has done everything possible to limit the amount of increase, and previously voted not to enact an earlier proposed fee hike in favor of more cost-cutting, as per suggestions from the public. During contract negotiations, employee benefits for both Lavagnino and Secretary Marianne O’Connor were trimmed 34 percent, the Board cited as an example.
“We’re lucky they’re still here,” opined Van Stelle, who went on to applaud Lavagnino and O’Connor’s work and cooperation during the process.
The district is also facing replacement of aging sewer lines within the next 10 years, which it needs to start socking away money for now, and refurbishing two pumps at a total cost of at least $19,000, which Lavagnino said was somewhat unexpected given where the pumps are in terms of their life expectancy.
Asked about the possibility of bringing in Mammoth Community Water District to manage the operation, Board member Debbie Preschutti said MCWD currently doesn’t have enough Class three employees to make that a reality, and is somewhat short-handed itself. She indicated such a move may be a possibility in the future, but for now MCWD isn’t interested in expanding into Crowley, though the Board is keeping its options open. The Board said that it will have to send out a Request For Proposal for candidates to replace Lavagnino, since there is currently no one in the area qualified to replace him when he retires.
The Board also said that, while members are sympathetic to bankruptcies and foreclosures, another delay isn’t an option. Addressing delinquencies, Shipley said, “We’re not talking a few months … some are as much as five years.”