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City proposes large sewer rate increase

By: Gloria Beverage
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Colfax area property owners are being asked to pay from $99 to $178 a month in sewer fees starting in July. The proposed increase will fund improvements to the city sewer system being required by federal and state law, reports City Manager Joan Phillipe. “These rate increases are substantial,” she said, adding city council members struggled with the decision to ask for a rate increase at last week’s meeting. In the end, they were left no choice, but to call for the increase. “If the new fees are not implemented, the city could face fines of nearly $25,000 per day,” she said. “That is money the city does not have.” A letter outlining the proposed new rates and announcing a public hearing on July 1 was mailed to property owners on Friday. In the letter, Phillipe pointed out construction of the new wastewater treatment plant, which started last October, as well as improvements to the aging system will cost nearly $16 million. The city has already borrowed money from the state as well as obtained more than $2 million in state and federal grants. And they will continue to seek out additional grant funds, particularly at the federal level. “We have also made a request for $14.5 million in Congressionally appropriated funds,” she continued. “These federal appropriations are highly competitive funds that are allocated nationally. If the city is successful in obtaining these grants, it will greatly assist in reducing future increases.” In the end, the city’s normal maintenance and operation costs exceed the amount of revenue generated by the monthly sewer service charges collected. Phillipe told the council last week that the rate increase could keep the system financially sound and in compliance with state and federal requirements. Property owners will have an opportunity to express their views on the new fees at a public hearing scheduled at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, July 1 at Sierra Vista Community Center, 55 School Street. Written protests must be received by the city prior to the close of the public hearing. Letters can be mailed to the Colfax City Council, P.O. Box 702, Colfax, CA 9573 or delivered to the council at the hearing. Depending on what the council hears during the public hearing, the rate increase could go into effect that day or it could be delayed, Phillipe said. “We’re trying to tie it to the next billing cycle,” she said, adding Proposition 218 requires a 45-day notification period for rate changes. However, if 51 percent of the property owners officially oppose the increase, the city would be unable to implement the change. Longtime Colfax resident Will Stockwin expressed his disgust with the decision in a letter to the editor. “Now we begin to see the real cost of all of the foot dragging, mismanagement and missed deadlines that have marked the WWTP upgrade project,” he wrote. “And those costs will keep going up. “Asked if there will be more fee increases in the future, city manager Joan Phillipe admitted this will only be the first of what’s likely to become an annual bleeding of the ratepayers because any hope for grant money to ease the burden continues to diminish in direct proportion to the growing fiscal crises at state and federal levels,” Stockwin wrote. Chuck Peterson, a resident of Colfax for five years, believes “this situation has sounded the death knell for both renters and sellers in Colfax. It could turn Colfax into a ghost town.” In fact, he believes the higher fees will have a negative impact on an already hurting real estate market and may deter new business. “We have a house for sale in Colfax. It’s very frightening for people who are trying to sell,” he said. “This has taken Colfax completely out of the real estate market, in my view.” In an effort to help property owners understand the situation, a public workshop will be held starting at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, June 17 at the Railroad Depot, 99 Railroad Street. City representatives will be on hand to answer questions and clarify information prior to the public hearing. In the end, Phillipe stressed, “there really are no options. This is a really tough situation for the city to be in. It’s tough for the council to make the decision. And it’s tough for the residents and community to adopt it.”