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Sunday, December 9 , 2018, 2:25 pm | Fair 67º


Lompoc Residents Sound Off On Utility Rate Increases, ‘Crappy’ Look of Brown Lawns

About two dozen Lompoc residents spent more than an hour voicing their unhappiness with the city’s escalating rates for its municipal water and sewer utilities at a town hall sponsored by Councilman Jim Mosby on Friday night.

“My bill has gone from 200 bucks a month to 400 bucks,” said Maggie Knowlton, a longtime Lompoc resident who said her family is hurting from the higher utility bills. “I can tell you, we feel this intensely. That’s a lot of money.

“It really hurts some of the people in our community, elderly people, people with small children, people with limited resources.”

Small business owner Victoria Sazani said she left work early to come to the meeting at the Dick DeWees Community & Senior Center to get answers for other business owners who are faced with annual increases in utility bills.

“I’m very concerned,” she said. “All of us are concerned. I came here to see what we’re going to do about that.”

Mosby scheduled the town hall to answer residents’ questions after comments exploded on social media about starting recall petitions or filing a lawsuit against the city after the City Council approved increases in water, sewer and solid waste utility rates.

On May 17, the council approved the fourth of a five-year schedule of increases for water and sewer — agreeing to a 10.5 percent increase for sewer and a 23 percent hike in water meter charges, but declining to approve the recommended increase on water units used. A third-year increase of 3.5 percent was approved for solid waste.

The rate hikes take effect July 1.

But Mosby said there is little the city can do about the five-year schedule of water and sewer rate increases first approved in 2013, and warned more utility rate hikes could be ahead.

“There is talk of initiating another rate study right now because they’re still not getting the revenues they need,” he said.

“We had a lot of reasons why we had to do what we had to do,” Mosby added.

“They’re just now getting their bond payment paid for and getting some breathing room for maintenance,” he said. “We have about $11.5 million of waste water lines that need to be fixed right away. We have over 100 miles of old lines that need to be fixed.”

Mosby partially blamed the need for continuing rates increases on the city’s lack of population growth.

The city’s water and wastewater plants were upgraded to accommodate an expected increase in population that didn’t occur, he said, exacerbating the need for larger rate rises because new customers aren’t being added to spread around the costs.

“You need sustainable growth and we’re at zero,” Mosby said. “We’ve been at no growth for 27 years. If you plan for growth and you don’t grow, what happens? Your bill grows.”

He said he recommended the council not approve a rate increase on water units used because “people’s quality of life is deteriorating because they’re afraid to use water.”

Several residents agreed, saying the rate increases, coupled with California’s ongoing drought, have caused people to stop watering their lawns and the look of the city is deteriorating.

“Now the community just looks like more crap,” said one resident who declined to be identified. “The neighborhoods look like crap because nobody is watering their yards.”

Another speaker who said he moved to Lompoc 10 years ago pointed out that the city’s appearance inhibits the growth the city planned for in the past.

“Who’s going to move here?” he asked. “The place looks horrible. It’s just a dump, I mean no one is going to move here.”

Several residents questioned the fairness of how the city charges renters for sewer bills that assesses each unit in multiunit housing the same amount, no matter how many people live in the rental unit or how much water each unit uses. Currently, the city charges each rental unit in an apartment building an average of the fees paid by single-family homes, resulting in large sewer bills for people who live alone.

Mosby acknowledged that sewer fees for renters are not “aligned with the water used,” and he suggested that renters ask their landlords to pay the sewer charges and prorate the amount each unit should pay.

“The discussion should be with the landlord to figure out a way to be equitable,” he said.

But resident Pam Wall disagreed, saying few landlords would be willing to agree to pay the sewer charges.

“They’re not going to take that on and divide it up by the number of people per unit and why should they?” she said. “Not every landlord is going to do that.”

Mosby thanked the audience members for bringing their concerns to his attention, and he encouraged people to contact him directly if they had specific questions about their utility bills.

“If people are having difficulty, that’s why I’m here, to try to learn what we’re doing right or wrong,” he said. 

Mosby said Saturday the meeting brought out a lot of good questions, and he thinks people came to understand why the rates had to be raised.

“I believe the people who attended realized that I’m approachable, and in the future they will reach out to me and ask questions,” he said. 

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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