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City of Fresno spent “more than we expected” on water rate lawsuits

By on May 22, 2014

The City of Fresno says that the $232,000 it’s spent to fight a water rate referendum is “more than we expected.”

“These costs have become more than we expected because a court has yet to rule on the primary substantive issue, whether the initiative is legal,” Fresno City Attorney Doug Sloan said in a statement on Wednesday evening. “Here, the law in California is that where a public entity is under a legal obligation to supply a service, the rates necessary to pay for that service are not subject to initiative.”

Through a public records request, CalNewsroom.com first uncovered that the city has spent $232,254.28 in litigation costs for two lawsuits to block a citizens’ referendum to overturn new water rate increases. The city denies that it’s thwarting residents’ constitutional rights and was merely fulfilling its “legal obligations” by blocking the referendum. The city hopes to resolve the broader issue for other local governments.

“Resolution of that issue is important, not only to the City, but all public entities that may be concerned about having the ability to supply services they are mandated to provide,” Sloan said. “The California League of Cities and other organizations have filed friend of the court briefs with the Court of Appeal and the State Supreme Court on the City’s behalf.”

City denied petition, then sued taxpayers

Ashley-SwearenginThe battle over Fresno’s water rates began last August, when the city approved a plan supported by Mayor Ashley Swearengin to increase the average water bill to $48 per month. The city says that the additional revenue is needed for a $410 million upgrade to the city’s aging water system. But, some residents of the city and unincorporated parts of Fresno County balked at higher water bills, which are expected to double by 2016.

When taxpayers attempted to circulate a petition to overturn the plan, the City of Fresno denied the taxpayers a title and summary for their referendum. Then, the city sued the taxpayers to prevent their initiative from entering circulation. The move appeared to be a direct violation of the California Constitution. Section 3 of Article 13C states that “the initiative power shall not be prohibited or otherwise limited in matters of reducing or repealing any local tax, assessment, fee or charge.”

Even supporters of the water rate hikes have grown disgusted with the city’s hard-ball tactics.

“We support the water-rate increases; they are vital to the city’s future,” the Fresno Bee editorialized last November. “But with these stalling and blocking tactics, Swearengin sends a message that she doesn’t trust Fresno voters to do what’s best for the city.”

Statement from Doug Sloan, Fresno City Attorney

“These legal issues are vitally important to the City. Here, the law in California is that where a public entity is under a legal obligation to supply a service, the rates necessary to pay for that service are not subject to initiative. Resolution of that issue is important, not only to the City, but all public entities that may be concerned about having the ability to supply services they are mandated to provide. The City never should have been forced to litigate this issue, but unfortunately it has been. Legal costs are never welcomed. They are an unfortunate cost of performing our public duties sometimes. Here, these costs have become more than we expected because a court has yet to rule on the primary substantive issue, whether the initiative is legal. So, we have been required to appeal the issue to higher courts, thus increasing the costs.

“It should be noted that other public entities throughout the State are fully supportive of our position and efforts, as well. The California League of Cities and other organizations have filed friend of the court briefs with the Court of Appeal and the State Supreme Court on the City’s behalf.”

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About John Hrabe

John Hrabe spends his time traveling the world as a freelance journalist. When he isn’t on an international flight, John writes about state and national politics for CalWatchdog.com, FlashReport.org, Huffington Post and the editorial pages of the Orange County Register. John’s most recent high-profile investigation uncovered the questionable labor practices of Goodwill Industries, the nonprofit organization famous for its secondhand clothing stores.

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