Monday, April 24, 2017

[Santa Barbara County] Orcutt sanitation’s fee increase ‘justified,’ says grand jury

The more than $400 yearly increase in fees charged to customers of the Laguna County Sanitation District (LCSD) in Orcutt is considered justified, according to a report released on March 23 by the Santa Barbara County grand jury.
In 2010, sanitation district customers paid $551.47 per year for sewer service, but in 2016 they were paying $963.68, or a little more than $80 per month for a single residential unit—an increase of 87 percent, according to the report.
But the increases were necessary, the grand jury found, because of needed upgrades to the plant’s aging collection system. The report noted that throughout the years the plant wasn’t treating as much wastewater as it could due to high salt content from home water softeners, which also limited the district’s ability to serve additional customers.
The county began operating the district after taking over an existing wastewater treatment plant and rebuilding a new one in 1959. The district currently serves approximately 11,700 customers, the report noted.
In 1997, the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission addressed the district’s problem in the Orcutt Community Plan.
Between 2001 and 2015, the district hired three consulting companies—Ch2MHILL, Penfield and Smith, and Carollo—which produced four upgrade reports for a cost of $849,231.
The final report Ch2MHILL produced in 2010 served as the basis for the district to request $34 million from the county Board of Supervisors for upgrades, according to the report. But a later report from Carollo showed that the $34 million, plus the service increases, was inadequate.
Martin Wilder, utilities manager for the LCSD, told the Sun that the cost is looking more like $38 million to $40 million.
Fees were subsequently increased by 11 percent each year from 2011 to 2015.
Increasing reserves enabled the LCSD to qualify for lower interest rates on the issuance of future bonds, according to the report.
“The idea is to build up cash reserves and also be able to repay the debt services,” Wilder said.
Wilder anticipates future rate increases from the district, but nothing like the “fairly hefty” ones in the past six years. Wilder said any further increases will be made to keep up with inflation. The 2017-2018 fiscal year will most likely see a 1.9 percent increase in rates, Wilder added.
Plans for the plant’s phase 1 upgrades go before the Board of Supervisors for final approval in the fall of 2017.
April 5, 2017
Santa Maria Sun
By David Minsky

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