Ever wondered how some City Councilmembers seem to have the most arcane information at the tips of their fingers, and are capable of producing it at the most opportune time? While you, the concerned resident, don't seem to ever have any of that kind of data available to you? Try as you might to find anything of value in our useless local newspapers?
It really isn't a secret. A few days before each meeting Sierra Madre City Councilmembers are supplied with a book of information called an "agenda packet." And in this book you will find just about everything that a full time staff of handsomely remunerated professional city employees can supply on each and every topic to be discussed. City Councilmembers are basically scripted by those seeking their guidance, while you, the conscientious resident, is stuck with little more than the Looney Views News for your research.
If information is power, then the City Council is driving a fully loaded battle tank while you have been equipped with only a plastic trash can lid. The odds are not good.
As any regular attendees to Sierra Madre's City Council meetings can tell you, certain elected officials are not above using that advantage as a prop to confirm their authority. Sometimes to the point of even rubbing folk's noses in it.
But today, dear readers, that all changes. Because, through the natural inquisitiveness of The Tattler, we have obtained a copy of tomorrow evening's "City Council Special Meeting" packet on the water rate hike. I am posting the Agenda Report for your edification. Because knowledge really is power, and here at the Sierra Madre Tattler we like to even things up when we can.
Oh, and I am certain Terry Miller will appreciate the part about water bond debt.
First, here is what little information on this meeting was made available to residents via the City of Sierra Madre website:
1. Discussion Regarding Sierra Madre Water Utility Operations And Water Rate Increase: Recommendation that the City Council provide staff with direction.
That is it for you. Not much in the way of clues. But the City Council Agenda Report, which is available to elected officials, along with the City Manager, Director of Administrative Services and the Director of Public Works, has a lot more information. You could have picked up a copy at City Hall if you had known about it. But did you know that? Not too sure very many do. Why it wasn't posted on the City of Sierra Madre website where most people get their information is a mystery.
Perhaps it was another case of "the legally required least notification possible?"
Here is most of that report. A couple less relevant sections have been excised for the sake of the typist's sanity.
Since May 2010, the City Council has received a number of reports, reviewed detailed analyses, and initiated a public information program to familiarize Sierra Madre water customers with the operations and financial condition of the City's water department and to obtain input and feedback from the community.
This staff report does not go into the details presented in previous staff reports; instead copies of the water related staff reports have been included as attachments. However, staff is prepared to present any information included in the previous staff reports, should the Council desire.
At the July 27th meeting, the City Council approved a two month long education and public outreach program aimed at:
a) Providing information to the Sierra Madre Community on the City's water utility
b) Responding to questions about the water utility operations, including, but not limited to questions about debt, operational expenditures, Prop 218, etc.
c) Explaining the reasons the City initiated a water rate increase process
d) Engaging the community in a dialog about the City's water utility, water rate increases and the city's future
Staff was directed to return at the end of the two month outreach period. This staff report provides a summary of the input received from five outreach events.
As directed by the Council, tonight's special meeting was intended to provide an additional opportunity to receive input, answer questions, and begin discussion of possible next steps.
There were five outreach events held. The events were:
a) August 14th Walk & Talk
b) August 17th Community Water Forum (was also broadcast on SMTV3)
c) September 1st Community Water Forum
d) September 13th Community Water Forum
e) September 29th Walk & Talk
In addition, the following outreach tools were used:
a) Water Fact Sheet inserted in water bills
b) Two postcards mailed to all postal customers (a postcard notifying the public of the outreach events, and a postcard notifying the public of tonight's special water meeting.)
c) Information on the City's website
d) E-mails to subscribers of City's e-mail notification system
e) Surveys were available at all outreach events
f) PSA on SMTV3
g) Staff presentations to community organizations, such as Kiwanis, Senior Lunch program, and Coordinating Committee
Staff estimates that a total of 200 individuals attended the five events. The first Walk & Talk on August 14th had the highest turnout, with almost 100 attendees. The remaining 100 individuals were spread out over the other four events.
(Ed: Within that 200 figure, did City Staff include the school children that were invited on those "Walk & Talks?" How about those non-rate payers living in senior housing? Or people already predisposed to the City Council's desire for a water rate hike? If this slim sampling is what they are taking as proof of community approval for a water rate hike, then I think skepticism about some of the conclusions reached below is in order.)
Overall, the vast majority of attendees rated these events as "excellent" and "very useful." There were definite "themes" that occurred at each of the events. Below is a summary of the main themes; "majority" reflects that these comments were heard frequently, and from a majority of individuals in attendance; "minority" reflects that the comment was stated by a few individuals in attendance (less than 3 individuals), and/or was stated infrequently (not stated at every meeting.)
To summarize the main themes:
a) Comprehension of the necessity for a water rate increase, however "the 15% increase" the first year was "too high."
b) Water rates should be increased; there hasn't been a water rate increase in years; all other utilities have increased in cost.
c) The events were useful, informative, interesting, professional and well done.
d) The City is doing a good job of providing information, all available media/outlets are being used.
e) If there was a plan to increase water rates gradually over the past five years, why weren't the rates increased?
f) Appreciation of the city's outreach efforts and the information; there was a lot of misinformation.
g) Preference that the City maintain control over its water system; local control is best.
a) Comprehension of the necessity for a water rate increase, and the City should proceed with the rate increase originally proposed in July.
b) Form an assessment district to raise funds for debt repayment and capital, instead of a water rate increase (preferred because of the income tax deduction). Would result in lower water rate increase to cover ongoing, day-to-day operations.
c) More printed materials/handouts would have been helpful.
d) It would be helpful to have more information regarding the water rate tiers.
e) The City should host a picnic to draw residents out for an information session.
f) Sell the water utility to a private water company; city should not be in the "water business."
g) Eliminate tiered meter rates.
h) Cost differential between the water rate tiers should be more significant; could result in a lower 1st tier cost and would also encourage water conservation; people who use more water should pay more.
i) Concerns that water conservation/reduced sales would precipitate another rate increase.
j) Comprehension that a rate increase was necessary; preference that a lower increase be instituted in year 1, progressing to higher percentage increases in out years, i.e.: Year 1 = 3%, Year 2 = 5%, Year 3 = 7%....this would permit adjustment to household budgets.
k) Water fund should go bankrupt so the debt will be erased.
l) There should not be any water rate increase.
(Ed: I guess they saved the best one for last. 200 attendees - some elementary school age, some living in retirement housing - versus the over 2,000 people who signed water protest forms and petitions. Who also apparently did not show up for the dogs and ponies. 10 to 1 is a very negative ratio, and I doubt it's the kind of result they were looking for.)
(Ed: And now we get to water bond debt part ...)
There were questions regarding the Water Fund debt at each of the events. After questions were answered, the majority of individuals at the events did not continue to perceive the debt as excessive or with a negative connotation. However, there were a few individuals who expressed a major concern about the water utility debt. Because debt was the subject of frequent questions, general information about the water department is included in this staff report.
(Ed: As obviously slanted towards increasing water rates as staff's "agenda report" is, this portion is the most obviously cooked up. And again, it is based on small turnouts at City run events designed to sell the water rate hike. Some of the very real concern over water bond debt stems from it having been left out of the May 17th Proposition 218 mandated water increase notification. Which many in town regard as a flagrant violation of the spirit of that law. This question was raised at these events. The non-inclusion of that information here is a clear indication of City Hall's continued refusal to face up to the consequences of their bad faith.)
The City's Water Fund currently has two bonds and one SGCMWD loan outstanding. The 1998 Refunding Bonds are refinanced debt. This is similar to an individual who refinances their mortgage and takes the equity out under a new 30 year mortgage. The terms are principal and interest (5%) until 2019. In 2003, when it became apparent that the City had Federal Funds available to do Capital Improvements to the water infrastructure, the City issued new debt; because for each dollar provided by a Federal Grant, the City had a dollar match requirement. The terms of the debt are interest only (5%) until 2019 and principal and interest (5%) 2020 - 2034. To receive the interest only terms, the bank required a revenue covenant of 120% operational income. The covenant is security to the "second mortgage" that the water Fund would remain financially healthy throughout the terms of the debt and that the City Water Fund would meet its obligations.
The City may only withdraw the bond proceeds after demonstrating to the bond trustee that the City (water utility) has eligible expenditures. The City's Water Fund, eligible expenses are limited to Water Capital Infrastructure as mentioned above. The City submits a claim to the bond trustee which includes invoices and payment information and the City is reimbursed for those expenditures.
The third outstanding debt in the Water Fund is an interest free 10 year term loan from the San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District (SGVMWD) for $1,456,875. The FY 2009-11 Budget documents reflect the first payment was due July 1, 2010; however, the SGVMWD provided and one year extension on the loan postponing the first payment until July 1. 2011.
(Ed: This is followed by a large chart that breaks down the overall debt, both bond and loaned. The total figure owed as of June 30th comes out to around a still immense $19 million dollars, or about $4 million less than we have been reporting on this site. The discrepancy could be due to payments having been made that are not yet accounted for in the Sacramento reports that we had been quoting. That and City Hall has yet to supply us with the information asked for under the California Public Records Act. Not bad for DIY, though. Remember, unlike the people stiffing us on the 2003 water bond information, The Tattler is still lacking for a fulltime taxpayer supported staff.)
This report provides a summary of the input received from various community outreach events. At tonight's meeting, the Council will receive additional input from the public. Based upon all the input received, the Council could provide staff with policy direction regarding possible next steps.
This really is kind of a wacky attempt at propping up an unpopular water rate hike. Apparently a very small minority of Sierra Madre residents showed up at City events designed to market this water rate hike, with 4 out the 5 events drawing only an average of 25 people. No indication is given if these were water rate payers, or casual folks out to check out the city pump house. As schoolkids and people living in retirement housing - and therefore not rate payers - were trundled out to these events to keep up appearances, then that 200 number would have to be regarded as specious. And when you consider that some of the actual rate payers present might have been there out of support for a City Council they are politically in bed with, the validity of this slender sampling decreases to almost nothing.
To me this represents another obvious attempt to circumvent the will of city rate payers on the matter of higher water costs. That City Hall needed to cook up a consensus is hardly a sign of strength. But that said, the blithe illegality of the City's Proposition 218 water rate increase notification process, especially on the refusal to name water debt as a contributing cause for the rate increase, will in the end render all of this silliness (to use a term with ironic intent) moot.
Bonus Coverage: So what in the name of all that is good and pure in life is this all about?
Attached at the end of the City's paper pile is something that many of us had been asking for, but somehow never received. Maybe now we know why. Listed in this report are the water infrastructure items that City Hall identified as needing funding from the rate hike and related Federal grants. Here is how those sentiments are worded:
The Public Works department has identified the following needs in Water Infrastructure improvements; however, due to the concerns about the City's ability to meet its current operational expenses, all projects are listed as unfunded.
The list has a lot of water infrastructure related expenses, some of them quite costly. Including $17 million for a "SGVMWD pipeline." But also listed are these two items:
Reconstruction of Library - estimated @ $7,000,000. (Reconstruction?)
Remodel front counters at City Hall - estimated cost is $50,000.
Not exactly sure how either one of these fits into "Water Infrastructure improvements." But a $50,000 City Hall front counter must be something truly hot. Does it come with tiki torches?