Small Town Fight of Water Rate Hike Revived in California

(CN) – Voters in Dunsmuir, California, can challenge utility rate hikes proposed by town leaders to pay for repairs and upgrades to its aging water system, a state appeals court ruled Thursday.

Mossbrae Falls near Dunsmuir, California.

Nestled at the foot of Mt. Shasta along the Sacramento River, the small town of Dunsmuir is home to “The Best Water on Earth,” having won a gold medal from Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting competition in 2014.

“This water comes straight out of a mountain spring and is delivered right to our homes and businesses,” the city’s manager Mark Brannigan boasts on the town’s website.

That’s if you can pay your utility bill.

Resident and local business owner Leslie Wilde says the town’s water is being held hostage by a rate hike to fund a $15 million water infrastructure project.

Passed by the City Council in 2016, the six-year tiered increase will fund a plan to replace the town’s 105-year-old water storage tank, along with miles of sewer pipes that have fallen into disrepair.

Wilde, who formed the Dunsmuir Association of Rate and Taxpayers, gathered 145 signatures calling for a vote to repeal the resolution, which the city refused to place on the ballot. It argued Proposition 218, a constitutional initiative passed by California voters in 1996 to limit the ways in which local governments can create or increase taxes, curtails voters’ referendum powers in the matter. While the city claimed the constitutional amendment allows voters to challenge taxes through initiatives, it does not apply to referenda.

The panel disagreed, finding Proposition 218’s focus on voter initiative rights does not detract from their referendum rights.

“Insofar as Proposition 218 affected voters’ rights, the initiative several times reiterated the goal of increasing voters’ rights to vote on local legislation. No mention is made of the referendum power or any proposed limitations on voter power in general,” Third Appellate District Justice Andrea Hoch wrote for the panel.

Joined by Justices Kathleen Butz and William Murray, Hoch also sided with Wilde that the water resolution is legislative in nature and can be subject to a referendum. While the city conceded this point, Wilde asked the appellate court to rule on the issue since it would affect other cities, like Dixon in Solano County which is also battling rate hikes.

In a phone interview Friday, Wilde was jubilant.

“I’m very excited,” she said. “We’re going to try to put this on the ballot and see if we can’t get the voters to overturn some of the excessive water rates or at least revisit the issue. It can at least open the dialogue as to whether this is the best way to pay for this project – on the backs of ratepayers. Ratepayers have a right to referendum. It might not pass but at least we know we have some rights. That’s why I did this.”

Wilde, a former City Council member herself and owner of Dunsmuir’s only medical marijuana dispensary, is also fighting the city over increased garbage collection rates, which she says exceeds the cost of service. That case is likely headed to appeal as well.

With a declining population, down to about 1,500 full-time residents from 2,100 in 1990, Wilde said people just cannot afford the higher rates. Dunsmuir has also cut its residents’ water allotment from 10 units per month to five.

Wilde said she is not opposed to upgrading the Dunsmuir’s water infrastructure, but believes the council needs to reconsider its strategy.

“I agree the city has aging water infrastructure issues,” Wilde said. “But we only have 1,500 citizens, so if you divide the project by our population, it’s $7,000 per person and that’s a very expensive project. Vulnerable populations rely on affordable utility rates to survive. They combine it with sewage and garbage and it’s a really big bill, and if you can’t pay, they shut off your water.”

She said it makes little sense to cut water allotments in a town that doesn’t need to buy or treat its water, but sources it directly from an underground glacier.

“We are a water-rich town. We have more water than we can ever use,” Wilde said. “When they cut our water allotments it doesn’t make sense because we’re not a high desert town with a drought.”

But with cuts and higher water rates, residents have stopped watering their properties to save money, a hazardous recourse in a region threatened by wildfire.

“Because the water became so expensive people stopped watering their lawns, and the foliage around their houses became dry and dead,” Wilde said. “We’re in a canyon. If a fire came through everything would burn. When people stop watering their lawns it increases fire risk.”

Attorney John Kennedy, who argued for the city of Dunsmuir on appeal, did not return a call seeking comment Friday. Brannigan, the city manager, also did not return a call to his office.

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