Fresno water-rate critic gets his city-written summary

The Fresno BeeJanuary 22, 2014 

A critic of Fresno City Hall's new water rates is ready to take his beef to the people.

Former Fresno County Supervisor Doug Vagim said he and his allies will soon begin pursuing voter signatures to put the higher rates to a binding referendum.

Vagim for weeks has wanted to begin his petition drive, but first needed a city-written summary of the issues to attach to signature sheets. After being on the losing end of several court battles, City Hall on Tuesday delivered the summary to Vagim.

Vagim isn't happy with the one-paragraph summary. He said its tone is more suited to an opposition argument on a ballot.

But for now, Vagim said, "we're going to go ahead. We're going to go with one arm tied behind our back. But that won't stop us."

The City Council last year adopted new commercial and residential water rates. Based on consumption, a typical residential monthly bill could double to about $48 by mid-2016.

City officials say the higher rates are necessary to fund a $410 million upgrade to the city's water system. The biggest piece is a nearly $227 million surface water treatment plant for southeast Fresno.

Even with the boost, officials say, Fresno's rates are reasonable. They say Fresno, located in a semi-arid region, must recharge its aquifer.

Officials say most customers chose not to protest the rate hikes. Fewer than 500 of the system's approximately 134,000 customers turned in protest votes.

City officials say the city's duty to provide a reliable supply of water trumps the public's right to have a second chance to protest.

Vagim says the city is overdoing the doom-and-gloom argument. He says last year's protest hearing was too confusing to be a fair test of public sentiment. The solution, he says, is a vote at the polls in November.

Vagim said he could ask a judge to force City Hall to rewrite the petition summary. He said that would consume a week or two, a price he won't pay.

Instead, Vagim said, he'll include his own summary on each petition.

Vagim said he'll probably go to court after the issue has enough signatures. He said he'll ask a judge to rewrite the summary that goes on the ballot.

Water rates initiative

The language that will be attached to petition signature sheets that was delivered to proponent Doug Vagim this week:

Title: Initiative Measure To Repeal City of Fresno's Four-Year Water Rate Plan And Related Water Fees

Summary: A "yes" vote on this measure would repeal water rates to be charged over four years that the Fresno City Council adopted on August 15, 2013, and cause the rates to return to what the Council adopted in 2008. The City Council adopted the 2013 water rates to pay for increased costs to provide adequate water that is safe to drink. The increased costs are caused by changes in state and federal drinking water standards, depletion of ground water, costs of maintenance and repairs to old water pipes and other parts of the water system, and the necessity to build a surface water treatment plant. If the current rates are repealed, the City Council could impose higher rates again. However, it would delay the City's work to repair and improve the water system.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6272 or ghostetter@fresnobee.com. Read his City Beat blog at fresnobee.com/city-beat.

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