Fresno water rate referendum headed for ballot
Fresno residents will have the final say on the city’s controversial plan to double water rates in the coming years.
On Tuesday, election officials certified that the petition drive spearheaded by former Fresno County Supervisor Doug Vagim has enough valid signatures to place the referendum on the November ballot. More than 5,500 registered voters signed the petition, which was circulated by Citizens for Lower Water Bills, to repeal rate hikes approved by the City Council in August 2013.
“We’ve got the people behind us,” Vagim told the Fresno Bee. “They’re ready to have their voices heard.”
But the fight is far from over, and the petition certification now puts the onus on the City Council to address the issue at its next meeting scheduled for July 17.
Will city play more games?
The City Council could avoid an election by voting to rescind the higher rates, or it could follow the will of residents and place Measure W on the November ballot. The biggest question: Will the city play more games and continue to thwart the will of the people?
The city of Fresno has gone to great lengths to block the referendum from reaching the ballot. When the taxpayers tried to circulate a petition to overturn the mayor’s plan, the city took the extraordinary step of refusing to grant the petition a title and summary. Without a title and summary, the group couldn’t collect the necessary signatures to get a referendum on the ballot.
Not content to block the initiative, the city went a step further — it sued the taxpayers. Eleven judges have disagreed with the city’s frivolous lawsuits, which have cost taxpayers nearly a quarter of a million dollars.
City could delay or decrease rate hikes
That history of bully tactics and obstruction has taxpayers fearing more gamesmanship from the city.
It’s within the city’s authority to refer the initiative to city staff for further study and to report back to the council within 30 days. That would, in the process, cause the referendum to miss the August 8 deadline for placing measures on the November ballot. The referendum would then be up for the June 2016 election, or an earlier special election.
In addition to this delay tactic, another option floated by Councilman Lee Brand would be to approve a 5 or 10 percent reduction in the water rate increases.
Vagim says a slight reduction is dead in the water. “It’s not legal,” he told me. “The people signed a petition that stated ‘Repeal’ water rates — not reduce them.”
City: “Not about Doug Vagim’s ability to collect signatures”
A spokesman for the city said that the water rate increases are vital to Fresno’s future.
“This is about Fresno’s future, not about Doug Vagim’s ability to collect signatures,” said city spokesman Mark Standriff. “The city of Fresno is looking forward to answering the real question posed by this measure – and that’s whether or not our citizens support the city’s plan to improve our water infrastructure, replenish our dwindling water supply, and provide safe, clean, reliable water for everyone.”
Mayor Ashley Swearengin, a vocal proponent of the water rate hikes, said the rate increase on 134,000 water customers is necessary to fund a $410 million upgrade to the city’s water system. According to the Fresno Bee, “The typical monthly home water bill could (based on consumption) go from $24.49 at the time to $48.34 by mid-2016.”
Swearengin is running for state controller in November.
Vagim’s group shifting public opinion
Vagim’s group collected 715 more signatures than they needed to qualify the measure for the ballot. In the process, they’ve also shifted public opinion on the water rate hikes. The Fresno Bee editorial board, which previously backed the water rate hikes, is now having second thoughts.
“City Hall might have reached too far with the size of these rate increases,” the Bee editorialized. “Though some households can easily absorb them — or afford to invest in water-saving technologies — many households will have to spend less on such things as groceries, clothing and transportation to pay their water bills.”
The paper concluded, “We suggest that the City Council take a hard look at reducing the increases. This can be done by trimming the cost of the new water-treatment plant and scaling back or even delaying some of the other improvements.”
This piece was first published at CalWatchDog.com.