How the City of La Mesa games the system--even when it is not necessaary
By Joseph Glidden
April 12, 2017 (La Mesa) -- Prop. 218 will make it difficult for La Mesa’s ratepayers to reject the pending sewer rate increase. If the city has its way, it will be impossible.
In order for residents to defeat this proposal, the law requires that 50% (plus one) of the ratepayers submit a written “protest” letter. This is not likely to happen. La Mesans have not rejected a rate increase in recent history. In fact, the last two sewer rate increases have passed with 99.9% of the ratepayers not filing a protest letter. This should have been a red flag at City Hall. It is nearly impossible to get 99.9% of our community to agree on anything, let alone on a sewer rate increase. So how did the city manage such a feat? By gaming the system, of course.
The latest sewer rate increase notice was sent out just after the last city council meeting so that the ratepayers would have to wait two weeks to bring the issue up during Public Comments. The notice arrived in a plain vanilla envelope. Nothing on the outside would suggest that this is the third of a four-part multi-million dollar sewer rate increase. For example, the letter does not say, “Notice of Pending Sewer Rate Increase” on the outside of the envelope. This would make the city’s intentions all too obvious.
In citing the applicable laws, the city chooses to use the innocuous term “sewer rate adjustment” instead of the more accurate “increased fees” that is used in the California State Constitution and the Proposition 218 Omnibus Implementation Act. In fact, the latter specifically states that an adjustment and an increase are not the same thing. Furthermore, “adjustment” is a legal term of art. It often has the special and precise meaning that refers to “a settlement or deduction made to a debt or claim,” the direct opposite of an increase. The city’s factious use of the term “adjustment” as a euphemism for a sewer rate increase is ambiguous, and meant to mislead the ratepayer.
The city includes a “Proposed Schedule of Sewer Service Charges” but does not tell the ratepayer how much their actual bill will be. The city has this information, and could divulge it, but chooses not to send the ratepayer a statement disclosing the actual rate increase until sometime after the rate increase has gone into effect.
The city requires that the ratepayer include their Assessor Parcel Number (APN) in their protest letter. The city has this number, includes it on its regular statements, but does not include it in their notification letter. Thus making it intentionally difficult for the ratepayer to comply with its protest letter requirements.
A public hearing will be held 45 days after the sewer rate “adjustment” notification letter goes out. At that time, staff will explain the reason for the rate increase. The ratepayers will be able to ask questions. The council will then vote to approve the measure. And before the ratepayers have time to understand what just happened, the increase will have been adopted into law without any chance for ratepayers to mount an effective protest campaign.
Mr. Mayor and City Council Members, the people of La Mesa have been especially generous in their willingness to fund necessary projects. In the past few years we have agreed to over $200 million in tax increases as a show of faith in our city government. We will, no doubt, rise to the occasion and once again agree to fund these mandated sewer system upgrades. But please don’t game the system, and lose our trust in the process. The city’s motto should be like that of our police department’s: To Serve and Protect. It should not be, “Never give a sucker an even break.”
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