As predicted, a planned 5% annual increase in water rates drew criticism from public and members of the City Council during Monday night's regular council meeting.
With one major item on the agenda - and one that affects the bottom line for nearly every city resident - there were plenty of public comments at the City Council meeting last night.
The disapproval from the public extended beyond the hearing of Item 7A on Council agenda, "Discussion, consideration and possible action on acceptance of 2012 Water Rate Study update and adoption of a 5-year plan for water rate increases."
Several citizens rose during the opening public comment period to voice concern over the proposed rate hike, and had to be reminded by Mayor Joanne Sanders that the public comment period was for items not on the agenda.
That didn't step over a dozen voices being raised during the 7A comment period critical of the plan to increase water rates, as proposed by the Public Works Director Milenka Bates.
Bates and her staff argued that not passing the measure would mean emergency maintenance, inherently more expensive than planned upgrades, and the eventual loss of wells. In that case the California Dept. of Public Health would be in a position to take over Sonoma's water department, which would mean loss of local control.
The proposed rate increases 5%, per year for the next 5 years, evoked considerable dismay and disapproval from the attending residents in attendance. Several of them were senior citizens who argued that being "nickeled and dimed to death" by increased rates on many services, which disproportionately ate into their fixed income.
A suggestion from Councilman Tom Rouse, to "cuddle up" to the Valley of the Moon Water District, was dismissed as unlikely by a member of the VOTM water district, speaking as an individual during the public comment period.
But Mayor Sanders in her remarks suggested that there must be some "economies of consolidation" that would argue for the move. "We're a small city," she said. "I just question whether we need to have our own water district."
Statistics presented by Public Works failed to convince the Council or audience of the imperative need for the increase in rates. One chart showed Sonoma's water charges third highest in the area, behind Petaluma, Windsor, Santa Rosa, Cotati and other districts, including the Valley of the Moon WD. (See attached graphic.)
Members of the Council were united in their skepticism of the imperative need for the rate increases, taking a cue from a public comment that not enough "due diligence" had been done. There was never a motion to approve the action, only to reject it. The motion to reject passed 5-0.
In other council action, Mayor Sanders said she had been hearing from constituents about the Planning Commission's recent rejection of a permit for Peet's Coffee & Tea to open a store a block south of the Plaza. She indicated she would bring the matter up for review in a later City Council meeting.
The bid for the Bond House and Barn demolition project was approved 4-1, with Mayor Sanders opposing because she didn't seen why the city should tear down the house, instead of explore selling it or otherwise keeping it in respect for the party who donated it to the city.
The renewal of the lease for Valley of the Moon Nursery School at 136 Mission Terrace also failed to pass, with the Council voting 4-1 (Mayor Pro Tem Ken Brown in opposition) to investigate the property and terms before agreeing to the lease renewal.
Minutes of the September 17 City Council meeting should be on the city website in the next few days; the video of the meeting should be available within 48 hours (end of day Wednesday, Sept. 19) at SunFMtv.com.