Folsom residents were taken by surprise Monday by a city pamphlet notifying them of a proposal to increase water and sewer rates – and they weren't the only ones.
Members of the City Council were also caught off-guard by the proposed rate increase, Vice Mayor Ernie Sheldon said. Normally, the City Council is briefed on such matters and discusses the pros and cons before information is made public, he said, but Sheldon first learned of the proposal in the mail like everyone else.
"There was a mistake," Sheldon said. "That’s absolutely inappropriate."
Marcus Yasutake, who heads the city's environmental and water resources department, which created the proposal, said he was meeting with members of the city to discuss the proposed rate increase and would provide comment Wednesday.
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Sheldon said Mayor Steve Miklos has postponed a July 10 public hearing on the rate increase because the council will not have had enough time to consider it.
"We’ll probably get a briefing that night, but it’ll be for the council’s education and discussion rather than public comment," Sheldon said.
City Council member Roger Gaylord criticized the distribution of the pamphlet.
"There’s a consistent pattern of us just kind of releasing stuff and just kind of not giving it full due diligence as far as articulating what we’re doing," Gaylord said. "The minute you send a mailer out saying you’re going to raise rates," people are going to respond.
"I think they kind of jumped the gun," he added.
Sheldon said he is concerned about the miscommunication with the water resources department, especially because he thinks Folsom residents may now be "concerned and irate."
Neither councilman is currently in favor of the proposed rate hike, which according to the pamphlet would require the standard residential home to pay about 1.5 times the current amount for water each month – from $15 to $22.70 by 2023. Tiered usage charges would initially decrease but then rise by 9-15 percent by 2023.
"There needs to be a detailed rationale for why it is needed," Gaylord said. "If we’re operating optimally right now and we're doing what we need to do, I’m not sure why we need to raise the rates."
Sheldon said he is open to the possibility that a rate increase is necessary, but will need plenty of convincing.
"I’m a senior with a fixed income and I know it hurts people when government does those things," he said. "You have to prove to me that we need it."
By the time the City Council is done discussing the issue, Sheldon said, there are three possibilities: The proposal outlined in the pamphlet could remain intact, the size of the proposed rate increase could decrease, or there could be no proposed rate hike at all.
What Sheldon is sure of, though, is that the proposal has nothing to do with the enormous housing development site south of Highway 50, which will eventually house 25,000 people. Some on Folsom Facebook groups speculated that the rate hike was proposed to pay for new pipes and water at the site. Sheldon said that is not the case.
“(The rate hike) has nothing to do with it at all," he said. "I wouldn’t allow that.”
"'South of 50' is the boogeyman right now. ... I honestly think it’s just bad timing," he said. "From my vantage point, I don’t think that the city is raising rates due to growth. I think that they legitimately did a study."
The pamphlet notes Folsom has not raised water rates since 2011 and has some of the lowest rates in the region. It said the rate increase would fund 3,000 feet of "new water mains to replace aging steel and cast iron water mains" in historic Folsom, upgrades to Folsom's water treatment plant, 4,000 feet of new sewer pipeline along Natoma Street "to minimize the risk of sewer overflows and annual maintenance costs," a financial reserve "for unexpected contingencies" and more.
If approved by the City Council, the pamphlet said, the rate hike would be implemented Sept. 1, 2018.
Steve Heard, a Realtor and 17-year Folsom resident, said he is not opposed to a rate hike, because the city's water infrastructure is in need of repair, but understands why "folks are up in arms about it.
"“Water’s a sore subject in Folsom, largely because of growth and the water that’s going south of Highway 50," said Heard, 59.
After the city agreed that if developers fixed Folsom's leaky pipes, they could use the resulting extra water, Heard said, many residents predicted a future rate hike to cover costs of delivering water to the new development.
"We’re so cynical," Heard said. "Many people see it as something that was planned long ago and they were waiting for the right moment to spring it on us."
Folsom resident Harrison Reynolds, 32, "absolutely" thinks the proposed rate hike has to do with the new housing development.
"How can you build 10,000 new homes and expect to get all that water from El Dorado?" he said. Reynolds, who works in restaurants and attends Sacramento State, plans to protest the proposal at the public hearing – whenever it occurs.
“If people show up and voice their opinion, then as long as the City Council members do what they're supposed to do and vote in favor of representing the people of Folsom, then it won’t happen, at least I hope," he said.