Sewer rates going up, council votes

City Finance Director Jim Goins, left, fields questions from members of the city council Tuesday about a 5 percent rate increase for users in the Richmond Municipal Wastewater District. The council approved the increase 6-1. Photo by Ian A. Stewart.

City Finance Director Jim Goins, left, fields questions from members of the city council Tuesday about a 5 percent rate increase for users in the Richmond Municipal Wastewater District. The council approved the increase 6-1. Photo by Ian A. Stewart.

About half the city’s households and businesses can expect to see a fee increase on their sewer bill starting next year, but it won’t be as steep as it could have been.

City Council voted 6-1 Tuesday evening to approve a 5 percent rate increase for residents within the Richmond Municipal Sewer District, which covers about half of the city’s households, for each of the next three years.

District officials say the fee hike is needed to pay for a $30 million bond to rebuild much of the sewer district’s aging infrastructure. The upgrades are mandated as part of a 2006 settlement between the city and the San Francisco-based environmental group Baykeeper that alleged that the city had illegally dumped untreated wastewater into the San Francisco Bay.

After hearing several members of the crowd oppose the increase, the council heard three different motions outlining ways to come up with enough money to make necessary repairs to comply with the settlement. Councilwoman Maria Viramontes suggested using money from the city’s general fund to pay for parts of the repairs, while Councilwoman Ludmyrna Lopez moved to have the council put off a part of the plan to replace a sewer line that runs under the surf at Keller Beach for a few more years, and use the savings to defray the rate increase. Neither motion received a second vote, and both failed.

Ultimately, the council voted to accept the 5 percent increase, a smaller rate hike than had been anticipated as recently as two weeks ago. The sewer district had initially recommended raising rates by 8 percent a year for three years.

“It’s unconscionable to trash the bay,” Vice Mayor Jeff Ritterman said. “We have to protect the bay. The sad fact is that we have some pipes that are over 90 years old. We can’t do anything about what happened before. We have to begin to fix it. So I’m voting for this, because we need to do this.”

Viramontes cast the sole dissenting vote.

Roughly 19,000 households and businesses in Richmond — close to half of Richmond’s total parcels — are covered by the sewer district, while homes in the northern part of town are covered by the West County Wastewater District, and those in the southern end are covered by the Stege Sanitary District. If over 50 percent of the households affected by the rate increase would have filed a protest with the city, the council would have been forced to drop the rate hike. According to a city lawyer, just over 300 protests were filed — far below the threshold.

“These are hard times for everybody,” said James Walker, a Richmond resident who spoke before the council against the hike. “This was obviously a big screw-up from management where we obviously didn’t calculate [the costs of] upkeep, and now we’re paying the price. I think we should just get out of this and let [the East Bay Municipal Utility District] come in and take over. Let’s wash our hands and let EBMUD take it over.”

EBMUD covers a small number of residents in Southern Richmond and the Richmond Annex. It provides coverage to much of northern Alameda County and western Contra Costa.

Several speakers urged the council to redivert the district’s wastewater into EBMUD’s system and close the Richmond Sewer District’s treatment plant, which is operated by a company called Veolia, altogether. Ritterman shot down that idea, saying it could cost $90 million to build a connection between the district’s plant and EBMUD’s. Mayor Gayle McLaughlin said the council would invite EBMUD representatives to speak about the feasability of such a partnership in the future.

“The potential cost of not doing this is far higher than the cost of doing it,” Councilman Tom Butt said of accepting the fee hike. “Nobody likes paying taxes or fees, but we have a responsibility to run this wastewater sytem in a way that’s legal, environmentally responsible, and does not put us in a position where the next city council is going to have to do this all over again. We have to bite the bullet and do this.”

In other business Tuesday evening, the City Council approved the purchase of nearly $100,000 worth of new firearms for the Richmond Police Department, but scratched a motion to green-light a $50,000 contract to hire legal aid to help the city consider whether to present a civil gang injunction to a judge for approval.

The gang injunction proposal, which was presented to the council earlier this year as part of the Police Department’s 2010 Homicide/Violent Crime Prevention Reduction Plan, would identify known gang members within the city, and bar those people from congregating together, wearing gang colors or hanging out in certain places. Oakland and San Francisco have recently implemented similar injunctions, which were met with considerable resistance from people who believe the court orders represent an infringement of civil liberties.

In an email to Richmond Confidential, Police Chief Chris Magnus stressed that the injunction is simply being considered right now, but has not yet been acted upon. The laywers the city is hoping to partner with would “work part time to assist our City Prosecutor to see if we even have the data and evidence to consider litigation of this type,” Magnus wrote.

If the city’s attorneys find that police have enough evidence to support presenting an injunction to the courts, the city council would meet in closed session to determine whether to move forward with it. Since the injunction has yet to be filed, Magnus could not say what names or places might be covered in such an order.

“The gang injunction remains a strategy for crime reduction that continues to be explored by the Police Department and City Attorney’s Office,” Magnus wrote. “It is not being ‘prepared’ at this time; it is merely one of many options we are still looking at.”

While the council has yet to take up the proposed injunction, at least one member said he’d support such a move. “I think it’s something that the police chief supports and I’d be supportive of it, too,” Butt said before Tuesday’s meeting.

The approved weapons purchases are for 46 Remington 870 pump-action shotguns (with costs not to exceed $21,538) and 150 Glock pistols and accessories ($89,721). Magnus said the weapons overhaul is intended to replace out-of-date firearms, which were last purchased in the 1990s, and that the current cache is simply wearing down. Funding for the purchase will come from a $573,000 Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance grant.

The moves come in the wake of an FBI report that ranked Richmond No. 2, behind only New Orleans, on a list of American cities with the highest murder rates in 2009. According to a Richmond Office of Neighborhood Safety report from earlier this year, Richmond Police estimate that there are approximately 20 gangs in Richmond, comprised of between 500 and 1,000 members. The report also states that between 150 and 180 individuals are at “extreme risk of being confronted by gun violence at any given time in Richmond.”

The consent items for the firearms purchase passed without opposition.

The Council also approved Mayor McLaughlin’s proposed resolution Tuesday urging the county to opt out of the national Secure Communities Program, which electronically establishes a system of cross-checking the fingerprints of people who have been arrested against a national Immigration and Customs Enforcement database to determine whether they are in the United States illegally.

Despite the fact that Richmond has been a “sanctuary city” since 2007, meaning it refuses to assist with any ICE raids in the city, the Council debated the relative merits of the mayor’s resolution for nearly an hour. The resolution passed 5-1, with Councilman Bates casting the dissenting vote and Butt abstaining. (See information about the Secure Communities Program in Oakland here.)

The council also issued a proclamation commemorating Juneteenth, the yearly celebration of Emancipation Day, when African-American slaves were liberated in the United States.

A twelve-person delegation of officials and professors from Richmond’s sister city of Zhoushan, China were also introduced earlier during the council meeting. The group is in the area for a three-day trip, during which they will visit Contra Costa College. Richmond Port Director Jim Matzorkis was leading the group on a tour of the city. The delegation received a warm ovation upon presenting the mayor with a painting of two women weaving.

One Comment

  1. Geneff

    I don’t understand why we need two sewer systems. I’m very suspicious of this waste water increase. I just read an article in Rolling Stone Magazine about a how politicians and investment banks looted many cities and taxpayers by building elaborate sewer system projects that cost billions more than projected and tripled their sewer taxes. Bond measures put the city sewer and water system into bankruptcy. Maybe critics have a point, the sewer system should be managed by professionals rather than politicians. http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/12697/64833

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