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Wednesday, January 23 , 2019, 7:27 pm | Fair 51º


Lompoc Council Delays Action On City Fees For Utilities, Airport Users

Lompoc’s attempt to assess new fees for public safety, infrastructure and street maintenance from utility ratepayers, broadband and airport users hit a roadblock Tuesday when City Council members questioned the assumptions underlying the methodology to determine charges.

The council voted unanimously to delay action for 45 days.

If the fees are approved, the city’s user-funded enterprise departments — water, wastewater, solid waste, electric, broadband and the Lompoc Airport — would be required to pay $4.35 million to the city’s 2015-17 general fund budget in addition to an overhead allocation fee the departments pay for administrative services.

City staff say the new charges are needed to ensure enterprise departments pay their fair share of costs for public safety, street maintenance, and capital improvements, and replacement costs for City Hall and other city facilities.

Councilman Dirk Starbuck questioned the effect the payments to the city would have on a series of ongoing utility rate hikes that were intended to generate funds to repair aging water and sewer pipes.

“What are the repercussions of approving this tonight on the ratepayers,” Starbuck asked. “If we don’t approve this tonight, what is the overall effect on our budget? What happens if we decide we don’t want to pass this on to ratepayers?”

Brad Wilkie, management services director, said if the new fees are not approved, the city would revert to the method used since 1998 whereby three utilities — water, wastewater and solid waste — pay 5 percent of their operating budget for general fund support.

Wilkie said the proposed reimbursement formula is lower than the 5-percent payment for solid waste and water, but is higher for wastewater.

Starbuck and Councilman Jim Mosby also questioned the formula for setting public safety charges based on the market value of the utility departments’ properties, rather than on actual services they receive.

“Is this really the best methodology to determine these fees?” Starbuck asked, referring to the $1.37 million that wastewater would pay for public safety support in the two-year budget. 

“Just because we overbuilt and have twice as big a wastewater facility as we need, is there a reason that they’re going to pay twice as much for police protection? It seems like an excessive amount.”

Mosby questioned why the city’s general fund doesn’t reimburse the departments for services they provide that benefit the city as a whole, citing city-wide streetlights and street sweeping, two utility departments funds.

A half dozen public speakers — including members of two citizen advisory commissions — asked for more time to review the formulas used to determine the three fees.

“I went through this document five times before I even got into what it might say,” said Ed Mandibles, a longtime airport tenant and member of the city’s Airport Commission. “I still don’t understand it.”

If the city implements the new fees, Mandibles said, “I don’t think you’re going to have any renters. You have empty hangers in Santa Maria, 18 of them. We’re just going to go over there.”

Robert Wyckoff, longtime airport user and Airport Commission member, told council members the airport is funded largely through state and federal grants, and receives few services from the city.

“I’d like to know why the airport was included in this study in the first place. This is a revenue generator for the city,” Wyckoff said. “Its primary funding source is the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration). Its capital improvements come from the FAA.”

“The stuff I was listening to sounded like a New Jersey hustle,” Wyckoff said after the meeting.

Former mayor John Linn, vice-chairman of the city’s Utilities Commission, said the commission voted unanimously Monday to ask the council to delay a vote for at least 30 days so commissioners could review the fee study prepared by a consultant.

Linn described the methodology used to support the fees as “flawed” even if legally allowed.

“I don’t care if it’s defensible. There’s defensible and there’s right and wrong.”

The proposed reimbursement formulas were developed by HF&H Consultants, a Walnut Creek firm that specializes in cost allocation and rate setting plans for governmental entities.

The agenda item is tentatively set to return to council on May 17.

In other business, the council approved funds for repair of a failed pump at the Aquatic Center, a new roof for the Cypress Art Gallery and a new entry door at City Hall.

Noozhawk contributing writer Carol Benham is a longtime local journalist who lives in Lompoc. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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