Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin on Tuesday said the need for a safe water system trumps the people's right to overrule their elected representatives at the ballot box.
Without higher water rates to pay for such a system, Swearengin said, the stability of Fresno's society is at risk.
"Without an efficient and sufficient water system, our community fails," Swearengin said at a news conference at the city's northeast surface water treatment plant. "Water is the most basic and fundamental need for our residents and employers."
At issue are hefty hikes to residential and commercial water rates approved by the City Council in August. City officials say Fresno's water system -- antiquated in many parts and undersized to meet the needs of a growing population -- requires a $410 million upgrade.
Opponents led by former Fresno County Supervisor Doug Vagim say the upgrade is too much too soon. They want voters to decide in a binding referendum.
The result has been a legal fight that now resides in the Fifth District Court of Appeal.
Swearengin and a handful of city officials took to the offense on Tuesday, explaining in detail what the extra money will buy and why Fresno water remains a consumer-friendly buy.
The details were old news to anyone who sat through any of Utility Advisory Committee meetings, town-hall sessions and City Council hearings leading up to August's rate hikes. Vagim's proposed referendum hasn't even gotten to the signature-gathering phase of a petition drive, let alone a guaranteed spot on next year's June primary or November general election ballot.
That left only one logical audience for Swearengin's argument: The appellate court that at some point will decide whether Vagim gets a green light or needs to stand down.
Swearengin said she refuses to embrace political expediency (no rate hikes) at the expense of unborn generations.
"There are far too many examples all around us of people not willing to make difficult decisions and, in the process, compromising our future," Swearengin said. "Kicking the proverbial can down the road in public leadership is by far the norm, not the exception. But I'll not adhere to that approach to leadership. It is not in the best interests of our citizens, so I won't stand for it.
"I recognize the short-term pain of raising water rates in the city of Fresno. I understand what that can mean for our people. However, I believe this short-term pain will result in long-term gain for the people of Fresno."
A typical residential water bill by mid-2016 could rise to about $48 per month, approximately twice as big as in mid-2013. Fresno homes are now on meters, so a bill's size depends in large part on consumption.
Many of the system upgrades will be purchased with bonds backed by rate increases. The city hasn't gone to the bond market while the rate issue remains volatile.
The upgrades' signature piece is a nearly $227 million surface water treatment plant in southeast Fresno. Officials also are planning, among other things, for new water pipes (some are 100 years old) and improvements at the northeast treatment plant.
Without the upgrades, city officials see a water future in which Fresno is buffeted by events that once were controllable but, through political folly, became destabilizing. They point to a declining groundwater table and ever-stricter federal pollution standards as potential powder kegs.
Vagim and his supporters say the public can handle the complexities of water in a semi-arid region and pass judgment on how to administer the scarce resource. They want the appellate court to rule promptly so they can begin collecting the estimated 4,900 voter signatures needed to put the issue on the June ballot.
The question is whether City Attorney Doug Sloan must comply with a Superior Court judge's decision to provide the Vagim camp with an impartial summary of the issue, a step that precedes the petition drive. Sloan has said the referendum is illegal, making the summary irrelevant.
Sloan was to deliver the summary by 4 p.m. Friday. The deadline came and went without Vagim getting what he wanted. Sloan had filed his appeal by that time.
Swearengin on Tuesday said the courts have yet to address the elephant in the room.
"The city of Fresno believes there is ample case law that indicates that a core public service is not subject to a referendum," she said.
Swearengin sidestepped any suggestion that City Hall, worried about where the passions of direct democracy might lead when voter pocketbooks are involved, wants the court to nip such threats to public policy in the bud.
She said higher water rates have been amply debated in the public arena.
"That full record is intact and has been fully vetted," Swearengin said. "That's what we're standing on."
Open houses on water rates
City of Fresno officials will hold two open houses to provide information on the new water rates.
- Today, 5-7 p.m. in foyer of the New Exhibit Hall, 848 M St. Parking will be free in downtown for this event.
- Friday, noon-1:30 p.m., Silver Dollar Hofbrau, 333 E. Shaw Ave.
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6272 or email@example.com. Read his City Beat blog at www.fresnobee.com/city-beat