A split Fresno City Council voted 4-3 Thursday to reject a proposal to start the process for utility rate increases, citing bad timing and concern about public outreach.
The agenda item from the Department of Public Utilities required a vote to start the Proposition 218 process, also known as the “Right to Vote on Taxes” Act, that would solicit feedback from the public on water, sewer and waste rate increases. The 20 percent increases were slated to take effect in 2020 and pay for increased operational costs, upgrading aging infrastructure and taking measures to meeting state requirements.
But a majority of the councilmembers rejected the proposal, including: Esmeralda Soria, council president who represents District 1; Steve Brandau, who represents District 2 in northwest Fresno; Luis Chavez, who represents District 5 in southeast Fresno; and Garry Bredefeld, who represents District 6 in northeast Fresno.
Councilmembers Oliver Baines, Paul Caprioglio and Clint Olivier voted in favor of the approval.
“You can kick it down the road for so long but eventually you’re going to have to deal with it because the whole infrastructure is crumbling,” Mayor Lee Brand said about the vote. “The longer you go, the more expensive it gets.”
Under the proposal, notices for the rate increase were set to go out in the mail Oct. 20 to city customers, allowing them to submit feedback until Dec. 6. Thursday’s meeting was the deadline for the council to vote in order to meet the time line for new rates to go into effect in 2020.
Independent surveys show Fresno’s utility rates are the lowest statewide, and even with the increases Fresno’s rates would remain among the lowest.
Multiple councilmembers said with the November election around the corner, putting another financial decision before voters was too much.
“We have a lot of stuff that are weighing on the electorate for November, including two or three different passes at taxes here locally.,” Brandau said before the vote. “To add another layer of going out to the public at this time, saying the city of Fresno needs more, I just think it’s a very difficult time.”
Both Soria and Chavez agreed more public outreach should’ve been done in advance. They recalled the community engagement done in 2014 and 2015 before rates doubled to pay for the newly completed southeast surface water treatment plant. “I want to have those conversations out in the community on what city staff wants and what we need to deliver,” Chavez said in an interview with The Bee after the vote.
Soria and Chavez also disliked the proposal’s plan to do away with a special rate for senior citizens and replace it with an affordability credit for low-income customers. Soria expressed concern about giving customers more work to get special rates. “We’re putting the onus on residents that would’ve had savings when we haven’t done a really good job on doing the outreach,” she said.
But Baines and Caprioglio said they preferred to be proactive in upgrading infrastructure and didn’t want to “kick the can down the road.” Caprioglio noted the council can’t even begin outreach unless the proposal on Thursday was approved.
Ultimately, Soria said she’d be willing to revisit the proposal after the election. But Brand worries by the time it’s brought back before the council, new council members who are unfamiliar with the issue will be at the dais.
“I”m willing to come back after the election if that’s the way they want it,” he said. “But, it’s got to be done.”