There are several major decisions facing the City of San Fernando and its residents in the coming weeks, which could not only affect their pockets but also their political representation.
Starting in October, the nearly 25,000 residents in the city will start receiving notifications seeking their approval for new water and sewer rates for the next five years.
The last time City water rates were increased was in 2016; the sewer rates went up in 2014. Both City expenditures are “enterprising funds,” meaning they are self-supported from rates and charges, and don’t receive any money from tax revenues or the general fund.
The notices will include a vote for ratepayers to approve or protest the increases. If more than 50% of rate payers submit a “protest” vote, the new rates can’t be implemented.
Catherine Tseng, a rate consultant for the municipal consultancy agency Lechowicz & Tseng, made a presentation before the San Fernando City Council at its Sept. 16 meeting to explain that the City is self-sufficient in the water it uses, and for the past five years has not had to buy additional water from the Metropolitan Water District.
The proposed new amount would be an additional bi-monthly $6 fee for water, raising the current cost for an average single family residential home from $37.37 to $41.11, along with a $2.27 fixed rate charge.
The rates for sewer would increase approximately $13 on a bimonthly basis for a single family residence, from $65.40 $78.35.
The rate hike would begin Jan. 1, 2020. Water fees would increase by $6 every year for the next five years. After the initial $13 increase for sewers, those fees would increase by $2 every year while the new rate hike is in place.
The City of San Fernando has 5,000 water customer accounts and 67 miles of water mains, as well as 6,000 sewer accounts. About 1,500 of those ratepayers would be eligible for a low-income bimonthly discount of $16 from their utility bills.
The money generated by these additional charges will help the City cover water and sewer projects, mostly to replace aging infrastructure, water testing and other items.
Tseng noted that even with these rate hikes, San Fernando’s rates would still be less than neighboring cities like Burbank and Los Angeles, which will also increase rates in the coming years.
Nick Kimball, City Manager, said the rates are necessary to replace aging water and sewer pipes that are prone to costly leaks and breaks.
For example, he said, a 300-feet sewer collapse that occurred two years ago cost the City $300,000 to repair. “If we’re not proactive, it’s going to cost us twice as much (when we have emergencies),” Kimball said.
Vice Mayor Sylvia Ballin said she anticipates a crisis if the rates are not approved.
“Not having the opportunity to turn your faucet on and have clean, drinking water would be a disaster,” Ballin said. “And if we have a sewer failure — which I know there have been a few in the city — that’s a greater disaster.
“I’d rather live with that rate increase than not be able to turn on my water faucet and be able to cook or take a shower, because the infrastructure collapsed and that’s very likely to happen,” Ballin said.
Ballin and Councilmember Robert Gonzales voted in favor of sending the rate increase notifications, while Mayor Joel Fajardo opposed. Council members Antonio Lopez and Hector Pacheco were absent from the meeting.
“I can’t support voting for this,” Fajardo said, noting that “over the last few years, the council has made some dicey financial decision and spent residents’ money in a poor way.”
The council will hold a public hearing on these rate increases on Nov. 18, where people will be able to express their opinion about the rate hikes.
With Lopez’s resignation from the council set to become effective on Sept. 29, City officials have decided to fill the vacancy with an appointment at the Oct. 7 meeting rather than hold a special election in March 2020, which would cost approximately $65,000.
The selected person would serve until the general election of November 2020.
Lopez was serving his third term on the council, which ended November 2022. In a letter read by Kimball during an August council meeting, Lopez said he was resigning “to pursue opportunities for the benefit of my children and family.”
Interested persons can get an application for the council position at City Hall starting Oct. 1. You must be a registered voter who lives in the City of San Fernando. All applications must be submitted by 8 a.m. on Oct. 7, Kimball explained.
At that night’s Council meeting, each applicant will have three minutes to make a presentation, and the public will be given a chance to comment before the rest of the council interviews the applicants individually. The final decision will be made by the council.
If no decision is made that day, the council could defer announcing the selection to a future meeting or extend the application period to solicit additional applicants.
In other action, the council introduced a resolution to dissolve the seven-member Community Advisory Committee that would have reviewed reports of the City’s expenditures after additional revenue from a special tax passed by voters.
The sales tax, known as Measure A, was first approved in 2013 after the City had to declare a fiscal emergency in June of that year. In was set to expire in October of 2020, but voters approved extending the tax indefinitely at the November 2018 election. The Advisory Committee was also established in November 2018.
Kimball said since the implementation of the tax, the City has collected “a little more than $13 million in new funds,” and the almost $6 million deficit in the general fund “has been eliminated” over the past five years.
The committee’s new term was to begin Nov. 1. But Ballin questioned if the City still needed the committee input with the City no longer fiscally in the red. “I don’t think there is a need for it at this time.”
The resolution by Fajardo would, instead of a committee, require City town hall meetings with the council to review how the tax money is spent. The resolution will be brought back to the Oct. 7 meeting.