by Venturans for Responsible and Efficient Government (VREG)
In the next 12 months, Ventura Water will ask the City Council to increase water rates for 30 wastewater projects and 28 water projects by 2024. These costly projects will benefit some property owners. Other projects will help the community at large.
As of June 30, 2018, Ventura Water accumulated $115,000,000 to use for those projects from 2012-2018. Still, they need $449,586,000 more before 2024.
These new rate increases will come on top of the increases imposed over the last six years. In 2012, Ventura Water wanted to increase rates to replace aging pipelines and facilities, building projects to improve water quality and constructing new groundwater wells.
In 2012 the average homeowner and family of 4, received a bi-monthly bill of $145.72. That same family is paying $209.67 today. This is a 43% increase over the 2012 rates.
So how can Ventura Water impose such large fees against its citizens without the traditional right to vote on such matters? The answer lies in how Ventura implements Proposition 218. Approved by the voters in 1996, Proposition 218 allows Ventura to raise money in one of three ways. General taxes. Those taxes used for general governmental purposes, Special Taxes. A Special Tax requires a 2/3 (66.67%) majority vote or Special Assessments, Fees and Charges. Fees or charges means an assessment imposed as an incident of owning property which receives a unique benefit.
Ventura wants to use Special Assessments, Fees and Charges to impose higher water rates. This is where Ventura water turns a non-vote into a yes vote.
Ventura Water sends a water bill. Somewhere in the body of that bill, it tells you why the rate increase is necessary. To dispute the rate increase, you must download a protest form, complete and mail it or take it to City Hall by a specific date. If 51% of the ratepayers have not voted ‘NO,’ that is the end of the matter. There are 32,000 ratepayers. Sixteen thousand one must vote NO to defeat an increase.
The procedure followed by Ventura is consistent with Prop 218 language, but a California Supreme Court challenge goes further.
The California Supreme Court in Bighorn-Desert View Water Agency v. Verjil (2006)39 Cal.4th 205, at page 205, interpreted Prop 218’s language to mean a city “may raise other fees or impose new fees without prior voter approval.” The Court’s decision was specific.
However, that decision by the Supreme Court only involved the issue of water delivery through a pipeline and whether voters could use an initiative process to require prior voter approval for the costs of that delivery. It did not involve a question of whether fees imposed to deal with a $500 million projects together with environmental costs, expert studies, attorneys fees and a plethora of expenses arising out of a Consent Decree decided by a City Council in 2012, and in which the voters had no voice.
What if the costs are not exclusively operational costs? What if the expenditures benefit the entire community, not just ratepayers? Does Proposition 218 apply in those circumstances? Bighorn-Desert View Water Agency v. Verjil does not address when the costs other than operational costs.
If the City is considering rate increase of this magnitude without prior voter approval, they should be mindful of the language in Prop 218. It provides that “in any legal action contesting the validity of an assessment, the burden is on the agency (Ventura Water) to demonstrate that the …properties in question receive a special benefit over the benefits conferred on the public at large…” This needs to go before the voters for approval.