Due to a twist of fortunate timing when the sweeping reform measure Proposition 13 was passed by California voters in 1978, the Goleta West Sanitary District receives a higher-than-average cut of Santa Barbara County’s property taxes every year, a locked-in boon that grew their reserve coffers to more than $28 million just a few years ago. As such, the district’s customers — including Isla Vista and most Goleta residents and businesses west of Los Carneros Road — have paid the same rate to pump and treat their sewage since 1994. This August, however, those sunny days of enjoying the least expensive rates in the county may start to slowly dim, as Goleta West recently alerted its 6,000 customers that costs are about to rise for each of the next six years, amounting to a more than 70 percent hike by 2018.
Though the proposed increase — which will be voted on by the district’s board members on July 16 — hasn’t yet generated widespread outrage, the news has been troubling for some customers who hope the district will reconsider. They intiially had hung some hope on a state law passed in 1996 that enabled citizens to block increases such as this if 50 percent plus one of a district’s customers wrote letters of complaint. But with less than 20 such letters on hand at the district so far, that possibility seems remote.
The district’s general manager, Mark Nation, believes the lack of “backlash” is because most customers understand the need for the rate increases and are appreciative of the third-party studies done to show why they were happening now. For starters, the district is faced with a series of major improvement projects: more than $15 million for the Goleta Sanitary District’s treatment plant upgrade; $8.5 million to move the main pipeline out of the Goleta Slough and onto the UCSB campus next summer, a project that, Nation said, “the environmental community has been asking us to do that for a long time;” another $5 million after that to improve pipelines on the Phelps Road corridor. Then there are the usual ongoing improvement prices and an expected 10 percent jump in operations and maintenance costs once the new plant is up and running.
Rates have stayed low because the “fiscally conservative” board put off these projects as long as they could. “It would be great if we could stay at that low rate,” said Nation. “But it’s finally time where we’ve got to do it.”
Those reasonings aside, concerned customers exist, including physician Ingeborg Cox, who points to what she sees as numerous statistical discrepancies in the studies. “If they are running a good business, you have to project losses or what might happen in the future so that can be corrected before it happens,” she said. “I would have increased very slowly the rate of the people who are going to be impacted — not all of the sudden like this.” Citing a line that explains a one-time increase of 43 percent in 2014 would cover the costs, she wonders why the district wants to bump it up to 71 percent over six years instead. “The public should have a choice,” she explained.
If the increase does go through as planned, Goleta West customers will still be sitting fairly pretty, as they would be paying the lowest rate in the county next year if it goes up from $168 a year to $181. Come 2018, when they may be paying $287 a year, they won’t be too shabby either. “If no one else raised their rates, which is wishful thinking, we’d still have the fourth lowest rate in the county,” said Nation of the $287. “When you look at the value you get for what we’re doing, it’s pretty good.”
The public hearing on Goleta West Sanitary’s rate increase will be on July 16, 6:30 p.m., at the district board room on the UCSB campus, lot 32. See goletawest.com for more info.