January 17, 2012

Happy New Year

Happy 2012!

New year, same ol' shit????

Nope. Not this year. Because of a California Supreme Court decision, redevelopment agencies will cease to exist on February 1, 2012. That will mean some big, big changes for Poway and hundreds of other California cities. You can be sure I will have lots to say about it soon, but here is a little hint: It's all about the $$$$$$$$$$$$$. Every redevelopment agency was required to work up an EOP (enforceable obligation payment schedule) of all their bond debt, contracts and other obligations for payment. Poway's total on the Oct 1, 2010 document? It's $1,398,802,316.43. Almost 1.4 billion taxpayer dollars diverted from schools and core government services. In little ol' Poway. To clean up our urban blight. They are crying a river over losing that money stream.

(note: Poway revised their EOP after the supreme court decision. The new EOP (1/17/2012) total: $0.4 billion. That's a billion dollars less that they will be spending now that redevelopment agencies will cease to be. Half that billion dollars will go to our local schools. They other half will mostly go to the county and come back to the city's own general fund for core services.)

Unfortunately for Poway sewer customers, it is the same ol' shit for 2012. On December 20th, the council voted to reduce the sewer consumption charge by 7%. Note that the word is charge, not rate. Poway doesn't charge for sewer use by the unit, the way they do for water (and the way other cities do for both water and sewer). They use an archaic tiered fee structure. It is an adaption from the days when everyone just paid a flat sewer fee and no separate consumption fee. Now, we all pay a flat service fee AND a consumption fee, but the consumption fee in Poway is not a rate as it is in other cities. Poway, charges a consumption charge of $40.98 to sewer customers who use between 6-12 units. That means that the customer who uses 6 units pays twice as much per unit ($6.83) as the customer who uses 12 units ($3.41 per unit). Poway gives an even bigger price break to the biggest sewer users. Customers who use 50 units of sewer flow pay only $1.83/unit. Is that fair? Or even logical?

Poway can afford to cut the sewer rates because they have a big surplus in the sewer fund. They have been overcharging customers for years, and, in particular, overcharging smaller users. What's amazing is how the city continues to use the sewer slush fund for non-sewer related expenses. Last year they completed a sewer project on Oak Knoll Rd that was paid for with redevelopment funds. But since they needed $3 million dollars to move Toyota across the street and shoehorn a Lowes in Toyota's old location, they took $3 million from the sewer fund and put it into the redevelopment fund to "backfill" the Oak Knoll project and then they moved it into a fund to buy property for Toyota.

The sewer fund is also tapped to pay the bonds on the new city hall. Most of the water/sewer services are run out of the city's operations center building near Lake Poway. So why are water/sewer customers paying for city hall? I guess we have to pay for the administrative staff who dream up new ways to soak us unfairly. Some of the council members who voted to make the sewer customers pay for the new city hall are on septic systems and don't help pay for those bonds themselves.

Remember the old water/sewer building on Poway Rd., right across from the library? That building was paid for by water/sewer customers, too. After it was no longer needed for the water/sewer department use, it was "quit claimed" to the city. The water/sewer ratepayers paid for the building, but we got nothing for it. Now the city leases it out. Does the lease money end up in the sewer fund? Nope. If the city sells the old building, will the sewer customers see the assets returned to the fund that paid for the building? Not likely.

Redevelopment owes the sewer fund a big bunch of money too. In 1983, Poway sewer customers forked over $5.5 million to jump start the newly formed Poway Redevelopment Agency. How did the sewer fund have an extra $5.5 million in it to lend to redevelopment? If I remember correctly, our rates were hiked up to minimize the stress of potential future rate hikes. I am not sure we will ever get all of that money back from the soon-to-be-defunct redevelopment agency. Does that make you feel de-stressed or distressed?

But that isn't all. The lush sewer funds are being used to pay the legal bills for a 5-yr long saga of negligence, irresponsibility and retribution. I'm talking about the Tartre/Armstrong case. Five years ago, the city hired a company to clear some trees on a sewer easement. They oopsied. They were supposed to cut down a total of 25 mature trees on 9 properties, but they took out way more than that. Of the 41 trees they removed from the Armstrong's and the Tartre's backyards, only 1 was in the sewer easement. The city admitted that they messed up and said that they used a map with the easement marked incorrectly on it.

The Tartres and Armstrongs wanted the city or (West Coast Arborist), the company that the city hired, to replant mature trees, fix the creek that they damaged and leave them alone. They filed a claim with the city. The City retaliated by citing (resolution 08-004)the Tartres and Armstrong with some PMC (Poway Municipal Code) and FEMA violations on their property. The City claimed that their fences were in a special flood hazard area and that they had to remove them or get a special permit that required a $30,000 flood study. Instead of working to make things right, the City puffed up their chest and said, "You take what we offer or we will make your life hell." And then the City proceeded to make their lives hell.

After the City refused to fix their properties, the Tartres and Armstrongs filed a lawsuit over the property damages. In a tit for tat, the The City sued the Tartres and Armstrongs over the PMC and FEMA violations. It didn't matter if the Tartres and Armstrongs won their lawsuits or if the judge noted that the City's case "smacked of retaliation", the City was (and still is) hell bent on sending a message: "Cross us and we will make your life miserable." And why not? Those excess sewer funds were just sitting there waiting to be raided to pay for the City's bullying.

Five years of hell. And it is not over yet.
Here is a summary of where things stand.

There are two main cases:
1)Appellate Court Case No. D056319
underlying case 37-2008-0076297-CU-NP-CTL

This is the Tartres/Armstrongs suit against the city and their contractor West Coast Arborists for damages to their property, emotional distress, and civil rights violations.

In June, 2009, a jury decided that Poway had been negligent and awarded the Tartres and Armstrongs damages for negligence and emotional distress ($119,810 for the Tartres and $67,462 for the Armstrongs). In Dec, 2009, Judge Link denied the City's request to undo the jury's decision and awarded the Tartres and Armstrongs $479,000 for attorney fees and legal costs. The Tartres and Armstrong were also required to pay the legal fees for West Coast Arborist.

Neither side was totally satisfied with this result. The City of Poway is appealing the civil rights violation portion of the decision. If the City wins, they won't have to pay the $479,000 in attorney fees; if they lose they will owe an additional 10% interest. The Tartres and Armstrongs are claiming civil rights violations and also that the arborist the City hired was responsible, in part for a portion of the damages. If they win, they won't have to pay the arborist's fees. If they lose against the City, they may have to pay the City's attorney and legal fees. The Tartres and Armstrongs final brief is due on Jan 20th, then oral arguments will be heard. The court will decide the case between April and June of this year (2012).

2) Appellate Court Case No. D055225
underlying case: 37-2008-00081870-CU-WM-CTL

This is the Tartre/Armstrong Writ against the city council after the city hit them up with PMC (Poway Municipal Code) and FEMA violations.

This case is almost concluded.
Judge Lisa Foster ruled that Poway messed up, didn't follow their own municipal code, got the FEMA thingee wrong and that Poway needed to take back their resolution (#08-004), harrassing demanding that the Tartre and Armstrongs pay for an expensive flood study and get permits for their fence, which the city claims is in a FEMA floodplain. The judge made that ruling almost 4 months ago. The council still has taken no action to comply with one part of the court order, the requirement that the Poway City Council rescind resolution 08-004.

Hmmm, I remember another case when the City Council allowed some residents to build a private gate across a public road. One of the people who lived on the road sued, and won his case in court, at great expense to himself. The city took their sweet time complying with that court order too. They didn't rescind their approval of the gate and demand it's removal for weeks after the court's decision. Respect for the courts much? I don't think so.

The Tartres and Armstrongs have to drag the City's sorry ass back to court and let the judge slap them upside of the head to make them comply. Last week the judge ordered the City to comply with her order or explain themselves at yet another hearing on April 6, 2012. The City knows that they have lost, but they have one last opportunity to taunt their own residents. And why not? It's not their money that is paying for it.

The City is paying for their attorneys and legal fees out of the sewer slush funds. I don't know why. The cause of the problem was bad maps (so said the City) and a bad attitude (so said the judge). I'm not sure which city department is responsible for mapping expertise, but whichever one it is, I think that department and the City administration owe a reimbursement to the sewer fund. The City's attorney costs were $354, 461 (as of June, 2011) for the first case and $83,553.36 for the second case (as of Jan 3, 2012).

If I was a member of the Poway City Council or staff, you know what I would do? I'd make some new year resolutions. First, I'd make 2012 the year Poway gets its act together and charges fair sewer rates. And secondly, I'd make a huge attempt to reform what seems to be a retaliatory bullying habit. It's nasty. It's embarrassing. It benefits nobody except the lawyers. It makes the city look like it is poorly run. In fact, it makes it look like it is run by a crime family, rather than a government that works for its own people.

2012 is going to be a big year of changes. Is it too much to hope that the changes will make Poway a better place to live?