Over 100 Are Excluded From Chambers As Upland Solons Vote To Up Water Rates

Six weeks after abruptly postponing a public hearing relating to the City of Upland’s move to institute a 57 percent increase in the price its residents will pay for water over the next five years, the city council held that hearing Monday night. In doing so, it received input from eleven residents who spoke on the topic while excluding over 100 others from the meeting chambers, the entrance to which was blocked by five police officers who barred those who sought to gain access to the building, and effectively thwarted the efforts of those outside City Hall to communicate with those inside. Without gathering input from the full complement of city residents wishing to weigh in on the matter, the council then voted 4-to-1 to institute the water rate hikes.
The issue of water use, availability, ownership and price is a controversial one in Upland, which lies on an alluvial expanse just below the foothills at the base of 10,064-foot elevation Mt. San Antonio, also known as Mt. Baldy, and 8,696-foot elevation Ontario Peak. A water rich environment, the community of Upland prospered historically in no small measure because of the availability of that resource and the success its settlers and succeeding generations had in tapping into the streams cascading down San Antonio Canyon as well as the constantly replenishing local aquifer. But the expanding population not only in Upland but the surrounding communities over the last five decades has outrun the capacity of what has become an archaic water system once utilized for both agricultural cultivation and domestic use.
The City of Upland operates the utility which supplies its residents and businesses with their water. The city owns nine wells with a total production capacity of 8,463 gallons per minute, and is a 68 percent shareholder in the San Antonio Water Company, which operates seven wells with a total production capacity of 8,100 gallons per minute. The city also has use rights to water drawn at four wells owned by the West End Consolidated Water Company within the boundaries of Upland, which together have a 3,075 gallon per minute production capability. For decades, Upland city officials skirted California law, which requires that revenue generated by a municipality’s water operations from the sale of water to the municipality’s residents, businesses and landowners be held in a sequestered account and used strictly to fund water acquisition, water service operations and the upkeep, maintenance, improvement and expansion of the water system. Revenue generated by the city’s water enterprise has been diverted to fund other elements of the city’s operations and costs, including paying for increases in salaries and benefits to city employees, as well as covering the escalating cost of paying for the pensions of retired municipal employees. This diversion of water division money has resulted in an ongoing repeated neglect of maintenance of the city’s water service infrastructure. While city officials now claim water rate increases are necessary to carry out needed system upgrades and repair critically eroded and dilapidating reservoirs, cisterns, mains, pipes, and other appurtenances, a cross section of city residents feels the city council should show greater backbone in curtailing what they perceive as overly generous salaries, benefits and pension commitments to current employees, and use that money to pay for the water system maintenance and upgrades.
In January, the city sent out with its water bills notice that the city council would hold a hearing at its regularly scheduled March 12 meeting with regard to the water rate hikes the city was proposing. On March 8, the Thursday before that Monday night meeting, the city posted the agenda for the March 12 meeting, in which the hearing on the water rate hikes and a possible vote of the council to impose those increases was listed as Item 12B. That hearing, according to the agenda, was designated as the “time and place” for the public to weigh in on the proposed rate hikes. When a near-capacity crowd showed up on the evening of March 12, Upland Mayor Debbie Stone made a unilateral decision to cancel the hearing and put it off until April 23. As she made that announcement, however, she offered an assurance that anyone who had come to the meeting that night who would not be able to be in attendance on April 23 could provide input that night. After one resident, Steve Carvalho, took Stone up on that assurance, Stone reneged on that commitment when city attorney Jim Markman remarked that by the terms of her statement, Stone was inviting too many people to speak to the matter that evening. “If 40 other people want to get up and speak to it, it’s no longer appropriate for this time of the agenda,” Markman said. Thereafter, Stone went back on her promise to allow those present that night to provide input on the matter, and she shut off the microphone of anyone mentioning the water rate issue or water at all. City manager Bill Manis pronounced any citizens who insisted on addressing the water issue as “out of order,” and vectored acting police captain Marco Blanco to approach the speaker’s podium to effect the arrest of anyone who attempted to again broach the subject. Blanco obliged Manis and called in four patrol units from the city’s streets to City Hall, which effectively dissuaded any further members of the public from speaking with regard to the issue that city officials had invited them there that evening to discuss.
On April 23, Monday night, nearly twice as many members of the public who had attended the March 12 meeting were on hand. Most arrived in the council chambers between the hour of 6 p.m., at which time the city council had adjourned into a closed session being held in a backroom at City Hall, and 7 p.m., at which time the council’s public session was scheduled to start. By the time the council emerged from its closed session, more spectators were present within the council chambers and the City Hall foyer than are permitted under the fire code, while scores more were waiting outside the entrance to City Hall. Eight police officers were summoned and, assisted by some county fire department personnel who were on hand, they prevailed upon more than fifty people to leave the meeting chambers. Five officers were then stationed immediately outside the entrance of City Hall, tasked with turning away anyone who attempted to enter City Hall. Initially, the crowd outside the doors of City Hall milling about the civic center concrete commons containing the veterans memorial between City Hall to the north and the library to the south numbered approximately 180. By 8 o’clock, there were yet 117 people outside awaiting an opportunity to go inside. Dual lines, fanning out eastward from the east sliding door entrance to City Hall and westward from the west sliding door entrance to City Hall, formed. The police on station would allow those at the head of either line to enter the building only upon, and in correspondence to, a like number leaving the building.
The meeting, which entailed its usual ceremonial introductions, festivities and exchanges at the outset, was nearly 15 minutes late in beginning because of the need to clear the requisite number of people from the room so as to not exceed the capacity of the meeting chambers specified in the city’s fire code.
Once the proceedings advanced to the consideration of the water rate increase, the city’s public works director, Rosemary Hoerning, and Pierce Rossum, a financial analyst with the firm of Carollo Engineers Inc., which has analyzed the city’s water situation and formulated both a game plan to provide the physical improvements to the water system to meet the city’s water delivery needs as well as a financing plan to defray the cost of those improvements, told the city council that the water rate increases were necessary to defray the costs of making a number of critical infrastructure improvements, the most pressing of which is the replacement of a four-decade-old water reservoir with a 7.5 million gallon capacity located at 17th Street and Benson Avenue. The city’s water fund reserves are nearing depletion, the council was informed. Revenue based upon the rate increases implemented in 2014 is inadequate because water conservation mandates and voluntary cutbacks in water use by customers has resulted in diminished use in households citywide and accompanying lower water bills. Moreover, the city is facing water acquisition costs that officials say run to $2.4 million more per year than what the city was paying for water a decade ago.
Pierce Rossum iterated the need to institute the 17 percent rate increase this year, which he said will prevent the city from going $1 million in the hole over the next year of operations, to be followed by increases in 2019 and 2020 of 9 percent each, then 5 percent in 2021 and 3 percent in 2022. Those rate increases are the maximum hikes allowed under California law. The rate structure will involve water being sold by the 100 cubic feet unit and three tiers of cost. Those on the first tier confining their water use to twenty 100 cubic feet units or less per billing cycle will be billed at the lowest rate of $1.76 per 100 cubic feet of water unit used beginning May 1; thereafter that below-threshold unit rate will increase to $1.91 on January 1, 2019, $2.07 on January 1, 2020; $2.18 on January 1, 2021; and $2.34 on January 1, 2022. Water used beyond the 20 unit threshold and up to 50 units will move the customer to the second tier, such that water will cost $2.32 per 100 cubic foot unit beginning May 1, 2018; $2.52 as of January 1, 2019, $2.73 as of January 1, 2020; $2.87 as of January 1, 2021; and $2.96 as of January 1, 2022. Cost on water use beyond 50 units will increase to $2.78 per 100 cubic foot unit as of May 1, 2018; $3.01 on January 1, 2019; $3.26 on January 1, 2020; $3.43 on January 1, 2021; and $3.54 on January 1, 2022.
The rate increase includes a fixed bi-monthly charge for those using the system with 5/8s inch pipe, the type used by virtually all of Upland’s domestic water users, set at $46.90 as of April 1, 2018; $52.25 as of January 1, 2019; $57.85 as of January 1, 2020; $60.80 as of January 1, 2021; and $62.75 as of January 1, 2022.
And Rossum said the city would also need to levy a “demand surcharge” to get the city over its current financial hump.
Roughly speaking, each household in Upland will experience a $19 to $20 increase on each bi-monthly bill this year and a $10 to $11 increase on top of that beginning in January 2019.
Rossum said that if some of the pressing issues the city is now facing with regard to water division operations are alleviated, it is possible that the rate increases in the coming years may not need to be as hefty as the ones outlined and that the council could decide then to reduce the rate increases accordingly. Rossum said he was just “trying to set the stage so you have the revenue that you need. If you don’t need it down the road, then you don’t need the second year of 9 (percent) or the third year of 9 (percent).” At this point, however, Rossum said, the financial outlook within the water division is such that “For the time being, that 17 percent increase you do need… from an operational standpoint.”
After Stone opened the public hearing Monday night, April McCormick told the council, “My first issue would be after that gentleman [i.e., Rossum] came to you in 2013 and said we need to raise rates for five years and then comes back in 2018 and says ‘I was $40 million off. We need to raise them again by 57 percent,’ why isn’t he fired? You are telling the public you are raising the rates by 17, 9, 9, 5, 3 [percent]. That’s just tier rate raising, I believe. I don’t believe that includes the fixed rates of the water meters, which are also being raised. If I am correct, those two rate hikes together is a 57 percent increase to all these people. They don’t know that because you haven’t told them.”
McCormick likened Hoerning and Rossum’s claims of “pipes are breaking, reservoirs are busting open” to “the sky is falling.” She said the city was using that as a pretext to set up imposing rate increases that were impossible to procedurally contest. “The citizens have to get 9,500 protest letters that are very detailed and specific and submit those to you to stop you from doing this to us,” said McCormick. “It would only take 7,700 signatures to recall our mayor and we’d have 120 days to do so. We get no special election.” McCormick said the city denying the ratepayers an opportunity to vote on the increase was indistinguishable from the council’s imposition of other decisions on the city’s residents without giving them an opportunity to approve what she implied were unpopular policies. “The water?” she asked. “No vote. [The selling of a portion of] Memorial Park? No vote. Redistricting? No vote. [The outsourcing of the] Fire department? No vote.”
Barbara Papa suggested the rate increases were excessive and represented government double dipping. “Governor [Jerry] Brown wants to tax our water,” Pappa said. “Government always gets what it wants. I was hoping you could split out the portion of our repairs and maintenance. We should just get taxed on our water consumption. I asked how much of our water is being sold to other municipalities. I was told that we don’t do that lately, which I consider to not be an answer. How much of this fund for the water department will be going toward underfunded pensions? Unlike government, residents do not have an unlimited source of income.”
Marjorie Mikels told the council that by imposing the water rate increase it was seeking to have the city’s residents pay for poor management and bad decisions by city officials.
“First, you sold off half of our assets and ordered a tax increase without a vote,” she said. “You passed that illegal property tax without a vote of the people based on a fraudulent label of annexation. Now you want to increase the cost of life-giving water because we saved our water [in compliance with government-imposed conservation mandates in response to the drought]. Because we saved our water, you’re deeming it necessary for us to have a water [rate] increase. We know that someone put trichloroethelene into one of the wells. If we have such a good police department, why don’t they go out and find out who did that and get some money out of the corporation that’s poisoning our water supply?”
Mikels then took aim at the city’s depletion of the water fund reserves through diversions to other municipal operations. “We know you have been stealing, or borrowing, from the water fund for years, and we ought not to have to pay twice for this water,” she said. “First, as citizens of Upland we paid for all that water infrastructure one time. Then you decided, not you guys, the one [i.e., city council and management team] with [former city manager] Robb [Quincey] and [former assistant public works director] Acquanetta [Warren] decided we needed to put it in a different fund. Then you said we owed that money to the fund, so we had to increase the water rates to pay back the city for those costs. Did you make the improvements at that time? Someone wants to know how long these improvements have been needed. And how much are you paying this guy [i.e., Rossum] with some corporation to speak that stuff that nobody could follow? It’s all just excuses for this water rate increase, which is because of the unfunded pension liability.”
Sandy Brennaman said she supported the council in its decision to increase the rates. “We are where we are right now,” she lamented, telling the audience the situation needed to be addressed. “If you want water, we have no other choice but let the city council approve this.”
Clete Driver, a city resident who said he had a large yard needing irrigation and a pool, insisted that he was willing to pay more for water to guarantee its availability. He said the reservoir at 17th and Benson is on the brink of bursting open, which he said he saw firsthand during a tour of that facility with Hoerning. “The reservoir… that thing is a disaster. Water is coming from the bottom, on top and sides. We need to understand the totality of the disaster,” he said.
Nine individuals who were among those in the room when the meeting began were permitted to speak during the public hearing. Two members of the public, who had been outside previously but had gained entrance after the hearing had begun when some who  were present inside left, arrived before the end of the public hearing. They were permitted to address the issue. Meanwhile, a crowd of more than 100 remained outside and were not permitted to take part in the proceedings. The city made no arrangements to provide the outside crowd with audio access to the proceedings taking place inside. Nor did the city arrange for a microphone hook-up to allow any of those outside wishing to address the matter to be heard.
After the public hearing was closed, the council discussed the issue of the rate increase and questioned Hoerning and Rossum with regard to some of the particulars.
Councilwoman Janice Elliott made a motion to approve the rate hike with the adjustment that the current rates continue for those remaining on the first usage tier of twenty 100-cubic feet units per billing cycle or less. “My motion is to keep tier one rates at the same rate as at present, increase tiers two and three, increase meter rates and include the temporary demand surcharge,” Elliott said in her proposal. None of her colleagues seconded that motion, and it died. Elliott then propounded an amended motion to cut all of the rate increases by 20 percent. That, too, did not advance for lack of a second.
Stone moved that the rates as outlined by Hoening and Rossum be approved. That elicited jeers from some members of the audience, which in turn brought a testy response from Stone. “We have to pay these same rates that you have to pay,” she said. “I have over half an acre of property too I’m paying these rates for. I don’t want to pay them.” She insisted that the rate increases were needed to carry out system maintenance so “I don’t … get a call at two o’clock in the morning that Euclid Avenue has a blowhole in the middle of it and it’s going to be shut down for six months because we’ve got to repair the pipeline underneath it.”
The council approved that motion by a vote of 4-to-1, with Elliott dissenting.
-Mark Gutglueck