Sewer System Need Driving Yucca Valley Sales Tax Initiative

(August 31)  In November, Yucca Valley’s voters will be asked to approve a one percent municipal sales tax to provide town officials with funding to pay for a host of improvement projects, foremost of which is a sewer system being mandated on the town by the state of California.
Officially referred to as a transaction and use tax, the funding strategy must ultimately be approved by the town’s residents to be put into effect. The town council officially made the request of the county registrar of voters for the initiative, now designated as Measure U, to be put on the November general election ballot.
Ostensibly, the tax’s backers are maintaining that the proceeds will be utilized for financing the construction of the new sewer system, along with road improvements and augmentations to public safety, as well as a number of other projects  to be apprved by the town council.
As proposed, the tax will need only a simple majority – fifty percent plus one vote – to pass. It is one of the peculiarities of California law that taxes intended for a specific use must pass by a supermajority,  i.e., two thirds approval, to be levied.
The primary motivating factor behind the requested tax is the need for the Yucca Valley community to develop a sewer system.
The citified amenity of a wastewater treatment system has long eluded Yucca Valley as the entire town and its outlying area have utilized septic systems for decades. After the town incorporated as a municipality in 1991, no effort to construct a wastewater system was undertaken. Monitoring carried out by the California Regional Water Quality Control Board and the United States Geological survey demonstrated that residues left in the ground that seep into the aquifer had risen to levels that presaged health threats if the matter was not addressed. Those contaminants included nitrates and other pollutants, including pharmaceuticals and salts.
By 2000, with the population having increased to 16,865, the need to transition the community from the traditional septic systems to a sewer system was growing, although residents and some officials maintained that the water level in the aquifer was deep enough to delay the need for a wastewater treatment system.
With the water table declining through the increase in population and limited rainfall, an effort to reverse the aquifer’s depletion was made, consisting of the construction of the Morongo Basin Pipeline and the importation of state aqueduct water into Yucca Valley. Whereas previously, the groundwater level had been dropping faster than the nitrates from septic systems seeped downward, with the completion of the Morongo Basin Pipeline project and the accompanying completion and activation of recharge basins in Yucca Valley, the Hi-Desert Water District began to percolate water into the aquifer and the water table began to rise. That water came in contact with the high levels of nitrates left over from decades of septic discharge and the nitrates found their way into some of the Hi-Desert Water District’s wells. This triggered a scaling back of the Hi-Desert Water District’s recharge efforts, and the goal of reestablishing the Yucca Valley water table to the natural level present in the 1940s has not been achieved. Moreover, Yucca Valley’s water supply coming into contact with the contaminants in the soil resulted in the animation of federal and state monitoring and regulatory agencies concerned with the drinkability of water.
The United States Geological Survey determined that nitrates accumulating beneath Yucca Valley are present in ever increasing concentrations and at depths that pose a threat to the groundwater, including a calculation that 880 acre-feet of septic discharge currently reaches the groundwater every year.
In 2007, the California Regional Water Quality Control Board, the state agency responsible for protecting water quality, adopted a resolution identifying the town of Yucca Valley as one of 66 communities throughout the state with groundwater threatened by the continuing overuse of septic systems. The board further declared Yucca Valley as a top priority for eliminating the use of septic systems, meaning Yucca Valley’s is one of the five most seriously threatened water supplies in the state.
With the writing on the wall and state regulators inching toward ever more prohibitive action, in 2011 the town of Yucca Valley, where the population had increased to 20,700 the previous year, forged a memorandum of agreement with the Regional Water Quality Control Board and the Hi-Desert Water District to allow interim permits for new septic systems while proceeding with planning for a wastewater system. Under that memorandum’s terms, state-imposed septic discharge prohibitions are due to be triggered as of May 19, 2016. Under that mandate, phase 1 of a wastewater system must be completed or significantly on its way to completion by that date or the state will initiate enforcement action. The first phase of the project is to cover the downtown area of Yucca Valley, the area most proximate to the heart of the groundwater basin.  Similarly, phase 2 must be completed or nearly completed by May 19, 2019 and phase 3 must be completed by May 19, 2022.
If those systems are not in place by the stipulated dates, Yucca Valley property owners will receive cease and desist orders with the potential of daily fines for non-compliance. They will be ordered to discontinue the discharge from their septic systems, seal them off and pump them regularly. If they do not, the fines to be levied against them can reach $5,000 per day.
To defray the cost of constructing the sewer system, which is to consist of over 400,000 linear feet of collection pipe as well as a treatment plant and other facilities, the Hi-Desert Water District made a previous rough estimate that  each Yucca Valley parcel’s share in the debt burden will run to around $16,700, likely entailing monthly assessments on homeowners of somewhere between $20 and $40 per month. Officials  now say  that estimate is  stale.
According to town officials, upon approval, the one cent municipal sales tax will bring in at least $100 million to the town and as much as $160 million over the next 25 years to help pay for the sewer system. This would lessen, but not eliminate, officials said, the assessments to be borne by property owners. “Our analysis conservatively estimates that the contribution by the town will reduce costs by at least 35%. This amounts to approximately $20 per month of cost per equivalent dwelling unit covered by the annual contribution of the town,” said town manager Mark Nuaimi.
Anticipating passage of the measure, Hi-Desert Water District and town officials have drafted a lease agreement to provide for town subsidization of the sewer project, which will be undertaken by the district as the lead agency. The agreement provides for the water district, as the owner of the pipes, collection system and treatment facilities, to lease them to the town for $2.8 million per year beginning in 2017. The town will in turn lease the sewer system back to the water district for $1 per year. The agreement calls for the service to be rendered to the jurisdiction of the town as a whole, and is a standard arrangement between public agencies with a common interest, officials maintain. The agreement will contain a termination clause the town can unilaterally trigger at will.
In its official proposal of the transaction and use tax, the town emphasizes that proceeds from the increased sales tax will be utilized for more than just paying for the sewer system and will deliver revenue to the city that will not only reduce the wastewater treatment system assessments levied on property owners but also pay for street and road improvements and enhance police and fire service.
While some town residents decried the tax proposal as a further layer of burden placed upon citizens by government, others, including  the chamber of commerce,  hailed it as an innovative step toward reducing for town residents the cost of building the sewer system, since town businesses cater to a clientele composed of roughly  50 percent non-residents.

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