Dixon sets vote on sewage rate increase, then sues to block it

The Dixon City Council is trying to block an effort by a taxpayers’ group to stop what the council considers necessary rate increases to protect water quality in the town.
The Dixon City Council is trying to block an effort by a taxpayers’ group to stop what the council considers necessary rate increases to protect water quality in the town. mcrisostomo@sacbee.com

The city of Dixon is suing a taxpayers’ group, trying to block an electoral challenge to a sewage rate increase in a growing rift over how to pay for $23 million or more in state-mandated improvements to the town’s wastewater treatment plant.

On Tuesday, the city filed suit against the Solano County Taxpapers Association, a group that got more than 1,500 signatures to qualify a ballot measure to stop Dixon from nearly doubling its residential sewage rates by 2016.

The Dixon City Council on Jan. 27 voted to place the anti-rate increase measure on the ballot in 2016. Yet the council also authorized the city attorney to sue to stop the public vote on the rate increase.

The curious legal and political fight in the town of nearly 19,000 residents has its roots in a long-running clash between Dixon and the state’s Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board over groundwater pollution from the Dixon Wastewater Treatment Plant.

In 2008, state water quality officials fined Dixon $223,000 for failing to upgrade the treatment plant. Mayor Jack Batchelor said the city is under orders to reduce the salinity of effluent that could raise the salt level in groundwater used for the city’s drinking water supply

To meet state mandates for improving the treatment plant, the city last year approved residential sewage rate increases from a current monthly fee of $24 per residence to $45-per month by 2016. Then local taxpayers began circulating petitions to challenge the increase.

In an interview Sunday, Batchelor said the city scheduled the initiative vote – but then sued to block it because “rolling back the rates” would violate a cease-and-desist order from the Regional Water Quality Control Board that mandated improvements to the wastewater plant.

Batchelor said the taxpayers’ initiative threatened to remove funding for state-required upgrades and “put the operation of the wastewater treatment plant in a deficit.”

“There would not be enough funds to operate the treatment plant and, therefore, you would have a health and safety issue,” Batchelor said.

Ourania Riddle, secretary and past president of the Dixon Chapter of the Solano County Taxpayers Association, said Sunday that the organization will go to court seeking to overturn the city’s lawsuit.

“Our group will fight this lawsuit, because if we don’t, we will be allowing our city government to continue violating our constitutional rights,” Riddle said. “They will keep doing whatever they want with no respect for the citizens they are supposed to represent.”

Riddle said members of the taxpayers’ organization were doubly angered when city delays prevented a special election from being held as early as this spring on rescinding the sewage rate increases. She also said the group believes the city has failed to explore less-costly technologies for improving its wastewater plant.

Last month, City Attorney Douglas White told City Council members that opponents of the rate increase had no constitutional authority to bring the matter to a vote because the city is under a state order to make improvements to the plant. He then compared the local ballot drive to ongoing efforts by conservative activists in far Northern California to secede from the state.

“Those up north who want to secede from California can’t secede by an initiative just because they want to,” White said. “You can’t override the state jurisdiction. ... Here, it is the same. You can’t just decide you don’t want to comply with a public health and safety regulation” imposed by the Regional Water Quality Control Board.

Local resident Loran Hoffmann blasted the City Council for delaying a vote on the rate reduction measure until 2016 – when improvements to the wastewater plant are expected to be completed. And she expressed outrage to council members over blocking the initiative altogether.

“This is not looking good,” said Hoffmann, who helped gather signatures to fight the sewage rate increase. “If you don’t allow the people to vote, they don’t have a voice. But it kind of appears as if you don’t care.”

The City Council voted 5-0 to place the anti-rate increase initiative on the November 2016 ballot. Then the council voted 4-1, with council member Ted Hickman dissenting, to sue to stop the public vote.

“I can’t in good conscience see taking taxpayers’ money to sue taxpayers,” Hickman said.

But Hickman said he was torn over the measure to reduce sewage rates because failing to make improvements to the wastewater facility could cost the city as much as $11 million in state fines for failing to comply with the water board’s order.

“Rate reduction would bankrupt the city,” he said.

Call The Bee’s Peter Hecht, (916) 326-5539.