Fresno’s dramatic struggle with water is sparking a memorable test of democracy.
The city finds itself in the middle of an unusual election on water rates. The campaign runs for another half-month and revolves around a single issue:
Should the residential and commercial rate hikes proposed by Mayor Ashley Swearengin to pay for a $429 million upgrade to the city’s antiquated water system go to the City Council?
Many Fresnans have already voted. More are likely to do so before the deadline.
The public policy at the root of that question is complex. Fresno has debated the numbers and nuances of water supply for nearly two years. No one is guessing where or when it all ends.
But the mechanics are a different issue. City Hall sums them up as simply as “Prop. 218.” That refers to Proposition 218, the state constitutional amendment that mandates how government must engage the people in order to raise property-based assessments, such as water fees.
In a nutshell, a certain segment of people is asked to first opine on the proposed increases — a protest election.
Just about any California city by now is an old hand with the process. But Fresno officials say this protest election is unique in local history.
Swearengin said the city is going above and beyond what is legally required.
Public Utilities Director Thomas Esqueda said the city “has made it very easy” for people to get involved.
But such comments are making a virtue of a necessity.
This election is actually the second of its kind in about 18 months. It comes as the result of a settlement with former Fresno County Supervisor Doug Vagim at the end of a long legal battle over how such protest votes should be conducted.
The coming weeks at City Hall figure to once again be full of talk about water. For now, the Proposition 218 protest election has pride of place.
Vagim sums up its essence.
“It doesn’t take a genius to know the people ought to have a real shot at expressing their opinions.”
All you need to know
This protest election can be boiled down to five simple rules.
1) If you got a ballot, you’re a voter.
2) If you’re OK with the proposed rates, toss the ballot in the recycling bin. To vote yes, do nothing.
3) If you oppose the rates, put an X or a check-mark in the ballot box next to this sentence: “I protest this proposed increase to water rates.” That’s your no vote.
4) Sign the ballot on the line that says “Signature.”
5) Mail the ballot in the postage-paid envelope or take it to the City Clerk’s Office at City Hall, 2600 Fresno St.
The voting deadline is 5 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 5. Ballots must be in the city clerk’s possession by then.
Dog ate the mail? The City Clerk’s Office will give you a ballot, sort of like a provisional ballot in a general election. Or you can call (559) 621-8618 for help.
Signed and mailed a protest ballot, only to change your mind? Go to the City Clerk’s Office or call City Hall to fix things.
The ballots will be verified. But all that is in the future.
For now, it’s sufficient to note several points:
About 213,000 ballots were mailed. However, the maximum number of valid votes is 133,347. That’s the number of property parcels served by the city water system (within the city limits and in county islands).
Why the extra ballots? Let’s say Jane Smith owns a parcel, but John Doe rents a house on the parcel and pays the water bill. As part of the Vagim settlement, City Hall agreed to send a ballot to both Smith and Doe.
If both protest, only one vote counts toward the final tally. If only one votes, that counts as that parcel’s vote. If both ignore their ballots, that’s a yes.
Some people wonder why opponents must make the effort (however modest) to vote no while supporters do nothing. That’s the way California law has evolved over the last century, Vagim said.
The valid, nonduplicate ballots will be counted. If there are 66,674 protest ballots (50% plus 1 of 133,347), the proposed rate hikes are dead. Fresno and its water challenges return to square one.
As of 5 p.m. Thursday, the city had received 34,508 nonduplicate ballots. That’s 25.9% of the 133,347 parcels.
City Hall at one point in December was receiving thousands of ballots per day. That pace has slowed considerably.
What’s next? Anyone’s guess
The Vagim-City Hall battle has been fought on two fronts.
The first began in summer 2013 when the City Council began a Proposition 218 process for what at the time was a $410 million project.
City Hall mailed more than 100,000 protest ballots. Vagim said the city’s course of action was inadequate to truly gauge public opinion on such a big project.
Among other things, Vagim said, it was too hard to cast a protest and the ballot didn’t include prepaid postage.
The 2013 protest election ended with 495 no votes. The nearly 35,000 nonduplicate (and, so far, unverified) ballots already received strongly suggest Vagim had a point.
As part of the settlement, City Hall promised to conduct Proposition 218 protest elections in the new manner for the next 10 years.
The second front in the Vagim-City Hall battle is water policy.
It’s sufficient to note at this point that Swearengin sees her $429 million project (inflation accounts for the higher price tag) as pivotal to securing a safe and reliable supply of water for the next century.
The big piece is a new surface water treatment plant in southeast Fresno. New pipes also are on the list.
Yes, Swearengin said, rates go up. The typical single-family residence can expect its monthly bill to go from about $25 to about $50 in five years, depending on usage.
Even at that, the mayor said, Fresno’s rates would compare favorably to big cities throughout California. She said the city is reviewing possible programs to help low-income customers.
In conclusion, Swearengin said, the project will keep state and federal water regulators (contaminated wells, aquifer overdrafts) at bay.
Vagim doesn’t dispute the value of updated infrastructure and water security. But he questions the need for the new surface water treatment plant. He worries about debt. He is convinced developers won’t pay their fair share.
All sorts of variables loom.
Council Member Steve Brandau on Thursday said he would abstain should the new rates come to the council before the city has explored every path to lowering the project’s cost to ratepayers. He called for a water summit to include local state legislators.
Swearengin, needing every council vote she can get, publicly endorsed Brandau’s thoughts.
There is no guarantee Swearengin’s $429 million project would emerge unscathed should it reach the City Council. As Council Member Lee Brand noted, the council could go several directions, including approving some parts of the plan and sending others to a referendum.
And then there is the ongoing Proposition 218 protest election, an exercise in democracy that has selected people voting on a future-altering plan that might look much different before the polls close.
Esqueda of the Public Utilities Department probably speaks for many Fresnans when he said, “We’re learning along the way.”