Big Pine residents are preparing to comment on and potentially protest a significant sewer rate increase intended to bring the town sewer system back within state standards.
According to the latest Big Pine Community Services District proposal, household rates will double from $15 to $30, while commercial business rates will increase from $.90 to $3 per billing unit (the first raise since 1978). The proposal also includes a monthly charge of $10 to both residents and businesses that will continue for 5 years to fund maintenance and repair of the 40 year old sewer treatment facility.
The cost of repairs and upgrades to equipment could be as much as $400,000 said treatment plant operator Denis Tillemans. Previous district board members have left sewer rates too low to cover the cost of these repairs, in part to help commercial businesses, and in part because raising rates is “a nasty business. You get a lot of upset people. So the mentality has been, ‘let the next board member deal with the problem.’ Now we have to face the music,” said Tillemans.
Big Pine is facing the music specifically because of a recent notice of violation issued by the Lahontan Regional Quality Control Board, which stated that Big Pine’s sewer system was not up to state code. If the district fails to make improvements, Lahontan will issue a cease and desist order, after which it can fine the district up to $5,000 per day until the sewer system is in code compliance. Were Lahontan to impose this fine, Tillemans said, the district would be bankrupt in 2 months. Lahontan would also have the power to appoint an administrative law judge to run the district, and “there can be no public protest at that point,” Tillemans explained. The district has determined rate increases with residents’ incomes in mind; the administrative law judge might not have the same concern. “If the community turns down the rate increase, it doesn’t mean it won’t happen,” Tillemans said.
Residents will have a chance to protest the Big Pine Community Services District proposal on Nov. 17 per their Proposition 218 rights. Proposition 218 “ensure(s) that all taxes and most charges on property owners are subject to voter approval.” This means that property owners have the right to protest the rate increase, and with a majority of 50% plus one, to overturn it.
But Tillemans pointed out that a similar case five years ago regarding water rates was resolved without enough protest to veto the plan. “This one is a bigger rate increase, so there probably will be more protest,” he said. “But we’re between a rock and a hard place. The outcome just depends on how well the district explains the situation to the community.”
The public hearing will begin at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 17 at the Big Pine Town Hall on Dewey Street. For more information, call the district at 760.938.2660.