Clean water fees to be finalized after mail ballot


Ballots seeking voter input on local water service will be mailed to Del Mar property owners by the end of July. The voting is about whether to approve the clean water service charge currently collected and about whether to allow a future increase.

Property owners will have until Sept. 15 to vote for or against the fees, which help fund the city’s state-mandated programs to protect local waterways from pollution.

The mail ballot was given the go-ahead by the Del Mar City Council after an insufficient number of protests to stop the process were received at the majority protest hearing July 7.

A majority of property owners opposed to the fee would have been required to stop the vote. Based on a one-vote-per-parcel calculation, this means that 1,117 protests were needed. No protests were received during the hearing, and 39 written protests were received before the hearing, 2 percent of the required amount.

This allowed the city to proceed with the second phase of voter approval of the clean water service charge - the mail ballot.

Property owners must mail or hand-deliver the official ballot to City Hall, photocopies and faxes will not be counted. If a ballot is lost or damaged, a replacement ballot can be obtained.

The result is tabulated only by the number of ballots returned. Even if only a handful of ballots are returned, if the majority is in favor of the fee, it will pass, if the majority is opposed, it will not. Results will be announced at the Sept. 22 council meeting.

The ballot will include two separate questions for voters to consider.

One will address the clean water fee rates that have been in place since 2004. The other will address the proposed increase of those rates beginning July 1, 2009.

Currently, a typical single-family residence pays $20.98 every two months. The proposed mid-2009 rate is $27.23 every two months for that same single-family residence, or a $6.25 increase every two months.

Thereafter, rates would be adjusted annually for inflation, based on the San Diego County Consumer Price Index, until otherwise amended by a subsequent ordinance.

Rates include a flat monthly service charge combined with a charge based on volume of water consumed. Base rates vary for commercial and restaurant properties and the Del Mar Fairgrounds.

The reason for the retroactive vote on the clean water fee currently being collected at the same time as the proposed increased is that the current clean water service charge rates, adopted by the city council in 2003, came into question after a landmark Supreme Court case in 2006 determined water rates were subject to voter approval under Proposition 218, the state law requiring a majority protest hearing for increases in property-related services. Prop. 218 had not been applied to water, sewer or trash services prior to that ruling.

Del Mar held a majority protest hearing for the 2004-2009 rate schedule in early 2007. A majority protest was not received and the city continued to collect the service charge.

However, the threat of litigation by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and ambiguity in Prop. 218 prompted the city to hold a majority election for the fees.

The election was originally scheduled for this spring. However, because the rate schedule expires in 2009 and the same process would soon have to be conducted for the new rate schedule, city officials determined it would be more cost effective to conduct both votes at the same time.

City officials expressed concern over the confusion this may cause among voters.

“We’re really going to have to make sure the ballot language is really clear,” Council-member Richard Earnest said. “For many, it’s going to be their first interaction with this issue.”

City officials plan to continue educating the public about the fees and clean water program. They have already held workshops and created an explanatory DVD.

The clean water service charge is needed to help cover the increasing costs of complying with the city’s clean water permit, city officials said.

The National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit issued by the Regional Water Quality Control Board requires all municipalities in the county to manager urban runoff and reduce storm water pollution, which contaminates rivers, lagoons and the ocean.

Del Mar has been successful meeting clean water requirements, having no pollution-related beach closures in the past five years. The city has received high rankings from environmental groups on beach quality, said Joe DeStefano, the city’s clean water program manager.

However, the permits’ requirements for preventing, treating and monitoring storm water pollution have dramatically increased since last January.

With the stricter requirements, the city’s budget for its clean water program is estimated at $533,000 for fiscal year 2009-2010.

The clean water service charge revenue will help cover the bulk of program expenses.

If the permit requirements are not met, the city faces hefty daily fines, as well as the possibility of polluted water.

“This really is a partnership with the community,” DeStefano said. “Through their support we really are able to continue compliance with the municipal permit.”