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County Notes (Jan. 3, 2018)

Ukiah City and Valley sewer system ratepayers may finally have some long sought hope of ending years of expensive litigation filed by the Ukiah Valley Sanitation District against the City of Ukiah beginning in 2013, which saw the Sanitation District demand between $15 and $30 million (depending on which of several versions of the demands are cited) and which the District says has gained them almost $9 million from Ukiah so far (although the whole tangled administrative/bureaucrat mess makes it look more like millions were moved from one pile to the other minus a bunch of attorney fees).

The District has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars with Duncan James' Ukiah law firm, which, of course, will be factored into any possible resolution. James, incidentally, is a former DA of Mendo County. Present DA, David Eyster, worked for James prior to his election.

The intermingled finances of the Ukiah Valley sewer system are as impenetrable as anything we’ve seen out of the City of Ukiah.

The City’s Sanitation apparatus manages both the operation and the billing for the city’s ratepayers, with the Sanitation District apparatus handling the finances (but not the operations) for ratepayers outside the city limits.

It's an extremely complicated arrangement, the upshot of which has meant a lot of added expense for ratepayers.

As best we can tell ratepayers currently pay about $60 a month for basic residential service on top of hookup fees that start at about $13,000, then go up from there depending on the size and nature of the hookup, such as residential, commercial or industrial.

The City of Ukiah recently proposed a settlement agreement, as yet undisclosed, which was offered to the new District Board a couple of weeks ago. The new District Board, made up of three new members who ran on a platform of ending the long drawn out dispute, seem amenable to the City’s proposal, but negotiations have been hindered by petty arguments about Brown Act compliance, closed sessions, “pending litigation,” lawyers, etc.

In a nutshell, it appears that the proposed settlement will use borrowed money to paper over the problem and leave future ratepayers with the tab. Apparently, Ukiah wants to bundle the disputed amounts demanded by the District into a bond issue that would finance the next expansion and upgrade of the sewer system.

By finagling the interest rates on the bond, Ukiah seems to believe that if they can get a bond issued soon (i.e., borrow many, many millions), they can get favorable interest rates that would help to compensate for the cost of the litigation and disputed amounts.

But that’s all subject to processes and procedures that have taken years to get to this point, then rushing into a bond on the grounds that delay will cost more interest money (which will leave everyone out a bunch more money and dissatisfied with the result).

The last time the District helped finance a sewer upgrade in Ukiah back in 2006 they included the following ominous paragraph in the subsequent budget:

“An interest surcharge of $541.00 shall be added to the base connection fee for each ESSU of allocation to offset the interest expense for monies borrowed by the District at a rate of 4% from the existing ratepayers as a result of the expected shortage in revenues needed to make the annual debt service payment associated with the expansion component of the 2005 Wastewater Treatment Plant Rehabilitation and Expansion Project. Should an ESSU allocation be a fractional unit of one ESSU, the interest surcharge shall be the same fractional unit of the interest surcharge of $541.00 as the ESSU allocation carried to the one hundredth decimal point. The District Board of Directors may amend the interest surcharge, as set forth herein by resolution without further amendment of the District ordinances.”

And if negotiations proceed to some kind of settlement behind closed doors, another such paragraph will be issued with ratepayers not having any say in the matter other than discovering what their new higher rates will be after the fact.

Watching the latest on-line videos of the District Board meetings it appears that at least one of the new directors, Ms. Julie Bawcom, has the smarts and desire to stand up to the otherwise petty and grasping players in both the Sanitation District and at the City of Ukiah which, like almost everything else in local government these days, is made up of grasping and ill-informed officials whose primary objective is lining their own pockets for the long-term, going along with the crowd, and not doing the necessary work of local government.

Prediction: Sometime early next year the City and the District will proudly announce that they’ve settled their differences while entering into a low interest bond to finance a big sewer system upgrade.

Conspicuously missing from that big announcement will be how much more the ratepayers will have to pay for the new debt service. Then in 2019 they will quietly slip out a new rate structure that will stink to high heaven. (— ms)

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FROM KC MEADOWS of the Ukiah Daily Journal: “We could not let the week go by without taking issue with the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors over the raise they gave themselves last Monday. They voted – with the sole exception of 4th District Supervisor Dan Gjerde – to give themselves a $24,000 raise, from $61,200 to $85,500.

County CEO Carmel Angelo had her staff roll out all the usual nonsense about how underpaid our supervisors are compared to other counties. Not true.

The executive office came up with a chart showing that if you take the supervisor salaries from Nevada, Yolo, Humboldt, Lake, Napa and Sonoma counties, the average is $85,500. Of course Napa and Sonoma, among the richest of the state’s counties, were included. It’s the only way to get the result they want. Sonoma has a population of 500,000 people, no where near comparable to our 88,000. And Napa, the heart of some of the richest wine country property and incomes, is also not comparable.

If you take Sonoma and Napa out of the average, the remaining counties’ average pay for supervisors is $67,327.

Now let’s look at our own county. At $61,200, a Mendocino County supervisor’s salary was already $20,000 above the county’s average household income of $43,510 and almost $40,000 more than the median individual income of $25,275.

Years ago when the supervisors last gave themselves a big raise like this the argument was: If you don’t pay them decent salaries, you won’t get quality candidates to run for office. We see no evidence of this and still less evidence that paying them more gives county residents better outcomes on the things they care about.

The only good decision made on the subject Monday was the supervisors opting out of tying their salaries to the $200,000 salary of judges (also outrageous). And don’t forget that with this raise also comes a hike in the retirement the supervisors will get.

Perhaps it is time for the voters of this county to decide that these salaries need to be set at the ballot box. We could tie the supervisors salary to whatever salary increase percentage the county employees get. Or we could simply tie the supervisors salaries to the annual inflation rate. Either way it would still have to go on the ballot for a straight up or down vote with each supervisor election cycle.

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