Reinforced by 5 different City of Sierra Madre sponsored "Walk & Talk" style events, the water infrastructure message was repeatedly cited as the reason why rate payers here would need to reach deeper into their pockets and pay more. Even to the point of making it the major argument for more money taking by the City in the Proposition 218 mandated legal mailing sent out last May. Which under California law was supposed to list all of the major reasons why water rates would have to be increased, but apparently did not. A risky move on City Hall's part that is likely come back to haunt them.
In his speech Tuesday evening before the City Council, former Sierra Madre Mayor Kurt Zimmerman cited in his arguments a passage from a letter sent by the City of Sierra Madre to a resident named Earl Richey. Mr. Richey was troubled by what he saw as obvious inconsistencies in the City's arguments for this nearly 40% water rate increase, and had brought those concerns up at the August 10th City Council meeting. Foremost on his mind were how those increases would be assessed, the "tier system" of billing, and rate hikes that would somehow be based on water meter gauge sizes.
However, there amongst the minutia regarding the convoluted systems the City was proposing for charging rate payers more for their water, was the following question and response between Mr. Richey and City Staff. We are reprinting the last few sections of it here.
Earl Richey: How much more money can the Water Department borrow over the $7,500,000 debt which the City presently has?
City of Sierra Madre: This question cannot be answered. The City does not have an adopted policy on credit limit; and the credit market would also factor into this question.
(Ed: The water department debt load, at $19 million, is far higher than Mr. Richey had feared. Add the CRA debt to that figure and you are talking about debt well into the $20 to $30 million range. And as far as an "adopted policy on credit limit," perhaps this is a matter for a future ballot?)
Earl Richey: I would like to know why Sierra Madre City Council failed to approve these questions to be agendized for the up and coming city council meetings?
City of Sierra Madre: The City Council will be discussing the Water Department and water rates in the fall. Your questions can be addressed at that time. In addition, staff was directed to address these questions as part of the City's public outreach and your questions and answers will be incorporated into future public information.
(Ed: Since the City's arguments in favor of raising water rates essentially stayed on the "at risk infrastructure" message - why else would they have taken 200 people to the pump house? - it doesn't look like the debt question ever quite made it all the way into prime time.)
City of Sierra Madre: Staff noted that in your presentation to the City Council, you began with an inquiry as to whether or not the 37% increase is actually enough. While not specifically asked in this letter, it is a good question that should be addressed.
(Ed: The following is in bold for emphasis.)
The proposed rate increase is enough to meet the requirements of the City's existing debt obligations and to begin rebuilding the water fund reserve. It is not enough to fund a pay-as-you-go capital improvement program. Funding a capital improvement program to begin immediate replacement of deteriorated water mains (for example) would require a rate increase significantly higher than what was proposed earlier this year.
There you have it, the smoking water gun. After telling the citizens of Sierra Madre that they would be required to bear up under a 37% rate increase to keep water infrastructure from collapsing, it turns out the money raised wouldn't be used as advertised. Rather it would have been spent on servicing old debt.
Apparently we had not been told the truth. Instead we were told a bedtime story. And we were told that story because the city wanted our money, but didn't believe that if they told us the truth they would get it. So we got "Water Walks" and "Walk and Talks" instead.
While this letter was signed by Elaine Aguilar and Bruce Inman (and cc'd to the Mayor and City Council, along with Sandi Levin and Karin Schnaider), I am not sure we can hold them completely responsible for the mixing of messages here. City Staff carries out policies set by the City Council. They are not here to act as independent thinkers, rather they are tasked with carrying out decisions made by elected officials. If the rate payers of this City were fed a lot of crap in order to get them to pony up more money for water, the authors would have to have been the Mayor and Mayor Pro Tem. Only they could have made such an ominous decision and made it stick.
Look, here's a point that has to be made. This isn't just about whether or not we will end up paying more money for water. Maybe we will have to do that some day. Certainly the huge levels of debt incurred by select City Councils of the past will eventually exact some kind of damage upon our personal finances. The situation is pretty bleak.
Of course, there are plenty of other things we would need to try first, like meaningful cuts to City budgets. And before I would ever be willing to put up a single additional dime I'd expect to see a lot of that kind of thing first. There is no reason why we should be paying so much for something that serves our interests as poorly as this City's government. At least as it is currently constituted. I for one want a City government that works for the people of Sierra Madre, and not one that willingly serves as a branch planning office for SCAG, SGVEP and CARB.
If we want to save this city from bad government and its effects, there will have to be some changes made. And rescuing our little town will not be easy.
But to my mind there is now another issue as well, a very big one. That being if the people of Sierra Madre were essentially lied to by our elected City Council leadership in order to coerce them into paying more for water, then we all have a responsibility here as well. This is a situation that cries out for a remedy.
And we now need to start considering what that remedy should be.