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June 12, 2021

Was this the right time to increase utility rates?

Our council passed a rate increase this week on water, wastewater and solid waste utilities. It was a 6-1 vote. I was the sole vote against the rate hike. This was a difficult decision for all of us. Here is my explanation on why I was a “No” vote to raise our community’s rates at this time.

I recognize we need to implement many upgrades, infrastructure replacements and improvements and growth is required in order to bring our infrastructure into a safe, modernized and operable manner. I also believe that most residents realize this as well. We see the devastation across our country due to failing infrastructure. Recently, in Texas a failing electrical grid caused major outages throughout the state at a time when the state faced record-low temperatures. In 2010, an electrical failure caused a massive neighborhood explosion in San Bruno, California. Here in Watsonville, we have seen water lines break causing increased expenses to fix and replace. We have also recently undergone a move from our local landfill to Monterey Regional landfill. The community may not physically see this move, but our city’s financial books feel it. Having to make multiple trips to Monterey County each day has proven to be quite costly.

Though we are faced with growing challenges, the ultimate question for me was, “Is this the most appropriate time to raise rates?” The answer was no. We are just coming out of a global pandemic. People have been financially strapped for over a year. Also, a $40 monthly increase over five years seemed exorbitant to me. Especially since we have been hearing about a possible federal infrastructure package that could address some of our issues. This could possibly bring down the rate increase significantly. The state of California seems to be addressing some of our concerns too. They have directed a $5.1 billion package to include financial assistance for water infrastructure. Monies are in the process of getting to our community to help with many of the infrastructure issues that we are facing. I thought it prudent to wait and see what comes in before moving forward. Even waiting until early 2022, would give us an idea of the fate for some of these federal and state bills.

I completely understand this is a dire situation. We pay some of the lowest rates around, yet we expect top notch service. However, for me it was about timing. With so many unknowns, I would have supported a shorter two year increase with minimal rate increases—enough to cover projects that need immediate attention. Then after determining what support is coming from the federal and state government, we could address the next three year increase at a different time.  I am sure within two years we will know where we would stand with any federal and state monies possibly coming into our community for these infrastructure needs.

I acknowledge and appreciate that this was a difficult decision for me and my colleagues. We were all on the same page of having to repair and replace our aging infrastructure. We are faced with major problems. I also agree the cost of living goes up every year and we are not immune to that here in Watsonville. To me it was about the timing. I wanted to give our residents a bit of a break to get out of Covid before we raised their rates. Also, to see if we could avoid a $40 a month increase through possible federal and state aid. This increase will almost certainly impact so many members of our community. On a positive note, it was comforting to hear the staff say they will create programs to help those who struggle to pay their utility bills. These details still need to be ironed out, but at least there was a promise to take care of the most in need.

Mayor’s Update is a recurring column from Watsonville’s mayor, Jimmy Dutra. His opinions are his own and not necessarily those of the Pajaronian. Contact Dutra at [email protected]


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