Tom Gogola, THE BOHEMIAN
New rate increases for the Occidental Sanitation District underscore an old problem: the West County outpost is a small and underfunded district that has no wastewater disposal system of its own.
The Sonoma County Water Agency recently announced that it had approved routine rate increases for eight districts and zones that provide sewer service to more than 18,000 properties throughout the county. In a release, it says the increases will pay for maintenance and operations, and for $50 million in capital improvements to sewer collection and treatment centers in the affected districts.
None of the capital improvements are coming to Occidental, however, which has faced a wastewater-removal conundrum for two decades.
Among the proposed uses of the new revenue coming from consumers and businesses: The Geyserville district will get new aerators at its wastewater treatment facility; there’s proposed funding for a flood resiliency project in Penngrove; sewer-main projects are planned for Sonoma Valley and the Airport/Larkfield/Wikiup zone; and other improvements are afoot in the Russian River and South Park districts.
The districts’ rates are being increased from between 3.5 and 5 percent which, in and of itself, is neither controversial nor widely opposed by the impacted ratepayers, says SCWA principal programs specialist Barry Dugan. California’s Proposition 218 requires public notification and explanations behind proposed rate hikes such as the ones approved by the SCWA board last week. If more than 50 percent of respondents reject the new rate, it doesn’t pass. Fewer than 2 percent of 18,0000 impacted citizens wrote in to protest the new rate.
A review of the breakout of opponents doesn’t show any one district or another having outsized levels of opposition to the new rates. Indeed, as Dugan points out in an interview, there’s almost exactly the same number of opponents to this year’s increase (217) to last year’s (216).
If there’s any controversy it’s with Occidental’s chronic wastewater conundrum and what to do about it. A handful of Occidental resident disapproved of the rate increases, in a town that’s in a uniquely tough spot when it comes to wastewater removal: It’s a very small district with only 100 ratepayers that’s been underfunded for years, says Dugan, and that pays among the highest sanitation rates of any district in the state—if not the highest rate, suggests Dugan.