The city of Lodi must restart the process of preparing for future water rate increases because of a computer error.
The Lodi City Council voted 4-0 on Wednesday night to have the city’s Public Works Department resend a letter to residents explaining Proposition 218 and why future water, wastewater and solid waste rate increases are needed.
Public Works Director Wally Sandelin told the council that a computer error excluded some 1,300 letters out of 20,000 from being mailed to residents in October.
The letter explained that the rates for water and wastewater could increase by as much as 3 percent over the next five years to take effect Jan. 1, 2014. The actual percentage to which the rates would increase would be decided by the council each year.
The letter also informed residents they could submit a protest vote if they didn’t want the increases to take effect.
If a majority of residents had submitted protest votes by the end of the day Wednesday, the increase would not go into effect.
Sandelin suggested delaying Wednesday’s public hearing and accompanying count of the protest votes to a Feb. 19 meeting so the remaining letters could be mailed to residents.
However, council members wanted the city to start the entire process again.
“I think we should have started all over,” Councilman Bob Johnson said. “We need to tell people we screwed up, put Mr. Sandelin’s letter out there explaining what Prop. 218 is, and just start all over. It will cost us money to do it, but let’s do this right.”
Proposition 218 requires local governments to give property owners the opportunity to vote on any new or increased assessment before it is approved.
Resident James Born told the council it was ridiculous for the city to spend more time and money sending the letter out again. He suggested the city put the letter in the water bill so everyone gets a copy.
“Put another form in our bills that state what the increase is,” he said. “Then, on the other side ask people ‘yes’ or ‘no’ if they want an increase, have them send it back and you’ll have your answer. It’s pretty simple. Who’s going to vote for an increase? Nobody in Lodi.”
Laurie Perez said a language barrier will keep residents from filing an opposition to the increase.
“Maybe these letters needed to mailed out in Spanish,” she said. “That seems to be an issue, because there are people here tonight who couldn’t understand the letter that was mailed to them.”
Some Spanish-speaking residents who wanted to speak against the rate increases needed a translator, and a citizen volunteered to do so.
Councilwoman JoAnn Mounce said that when she received the letter in October, she noticed half of it was written in “legal jargon” that could easily confuse English speaking residents.
She added that the portion of the letter explaining how to protest the rate increase was in small print and not easy to read.
“We need to throw this entire thing out the door,” she said. “We did a poor job educating our citizens about what this increase is all about.”
Mounce said the city needs to send the letter out in other languages, and put the entire text in a font everyone can read clearly.
When asked about putting the letter in the same envelope as the water bill, city attorney Steve Schwabauer said it can be done, but cautioned against it.
“Our evidence has found that ‘bill stuffers’ don’t get read,” he said. “We’ve always felt that a stand-alone mailer provides a better notice and will get read.”
Sandelin said mailing the letter with water bills would also increase the time frame to hold the hearing, because bills are sent out in sequence, not all at once.
Deputy City Manager Jordan Ayers said it would take about four weeks to mail all the water bills to residents. In addition, he said about 6,000 residents pay their bills online and do not receive paper copies.
However, he said he would discuss the possibility of sending either an electronic notice or a second stand-alone mailer to those customers with Schwabauer.
Ayers said the new letter may also be as many as two or three pages in length, depending on the number of languages in which it will be translated.
Despite not approving the five-year rate increase, a 2.5 percent water rate increase for 2014 was approved by a 3-1 vote later in the evening, to take effect Jan. 1, 2014.
Mounce dissented, citing she has not approved rate increases in the past. She was also concerned that approving the 2014 rates was confusing residents.
“I think this is sort of confusing,” she said. “I mean, we just held a public hearing to delay one rate increase, and now we’re still discussing this one.”
In January, a single-family, one-bedroom home that currently pays a flat rate of $29.90 per month for water will see an increase to $30.65 on its monthly bill, according to staff reports from Wednesday’s agenda.
A single-family, seven-bedroom home that currently pays $89.31 per month will see an increase to $91.54.
A multi-family, one-bedroom home that currently pays $25.67 per month will see an increase to $26.31, while a multi-family, three-bedroom home paying $36.94 per month will pay $37.86 in January.
Metered water rates will also increase by 2.5 percent.
For example, a single-family home that uses a 1-inch meter and currently pays $38.60 per month will pay $39.57 in January.
A similar home that uses a 2-inch meter and pays $119.79 per month will now pay $122.78.
Multi-family homes or non-residential customers that use a 1-inch meter and currently pay $38.60 per month will pay $39.57 in January, while a similar home or customer that uses the larger 10-inch meter and pays $316.10 per month will pay $324.
This water rate increase was approved in 2009 as part of a five-year plan, with 2014 the last year in that cycle.
Council member Alan Nakanishi was absent from Wednesday’s meeting.
Contact reporter Wes Bowers at email@example.com.