In an I-team investigation, a local wastewater treatment district is backing off plans to raise customer rates dramatically.
“On this proposal, we had out, that is completely out," said Debra Canero who serves as Board President of the Valley Sanitary District.
The district's 400 percent rate hike is postponed indefinitely, according to a release issued Thursday afternoon.
That was the same day the sanitary district's board of directors voted unanimously to kill the proposal and just days after News Channel 3 began asking questions about the proposed new rates, tucked into every property owner's annual tax bill.
We also wanted to know where all the extra money would be spent.
"We have heard them and I think we've heard enough," said Canero who added it's time to step back and reevaluate the district's financing and needs.
"The public has been heard emails," Canero said, "phone calls. We work for our constituents. We are elected by our constituents-- our fee payers."
Tuesday's news is welcome news to customers we heard from who would have seen their annual sewer bills double, then doubled again within five years.
Indio resident Jim Wolynski said his reaction to the initial proposal was, "I was like, ‘What Are they kidding?’”
His husband, Sergio Corbo, agreed saying, “This, I think, is totally out of control.”
A neighbor Roz Walanka said, "I mean, I’m furious about the whole thing.”
The Sanitary district encompasses the City of Indio and small portions of Coachella and Bermuda Dunes.
If approved, single-family homes would have seen their current $385.56 fixed charges jump to $1,488.47 within by 2027. That would have been on top of the current $1.10 charge for every 780 gallons put into the sewer. That charge would rise to $4.27 per unit starting July 1.
“In addition to all the other property taxes, you’re going to be paying a little over two thousand dollars a year just for your sewers,” Wolynski said.
Indio City leaders also expressed their doubts about the abilities of ratepayers to absorb such a large rate increase, while questioning the immediate need for new waste treatment facilities.
At last Wednesday's city council meeting, Indio City Councilmember Glenn Miller said, "When you're talking over 370 percent, depending on the numbers you come up with over a five-year period, that's overwhelming for a lot of people and hard to justify it."
District representatives said they wanted the extra cash to pay for a new program to convert bio-solid waste into liquid fertilizer for local use. The new program could offset expected higher costs from no longer having to truck solid waste remnants to Arizona which has doubled charges for accepting such waste and is considering bans on all California waste shipments.
On the liquid fertilizer program, Buchwald said, "We already know it works in Canada. It works up in Northern California. So we’ll give it a try."
The district also wanted $52 million to maintain and rehab its aging 260-mile network of sewer mains district-wide.
The most costly project was a $197 million request to build a more modern waste treatment plant that could clean wastewater more thoroughly.
Canero felt the project was well worth the money when asked about its worth.
District managers said the new plant would eliminate current waste ponds and fear it may be required by 2025 or 2030 to renew their state and federal permits.
“Is there a concern that this cost just might be too much for some people to pay?” Jeff Stahl asked Buchwald. He responded, “I believe so. Yes, there is a concern.”
Now that the board has voted to cancel the plans, Canero says they’ve finally started making contacts with potential new sources of funding in Sacramento and Washington D.C.
"The community has reached out to Congressman Ruiz's office," Canero said. "And he did send a staffer last week, and things are looking good for a possibility of a grant they are searching for us," she added.
“The board of directors has been we've been adamant and it is our obligation to knock on those doors," Canero said.
The district has qualified to apply for a Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) loan but needs to raise customer rates, and its cash flow, to improve district finances enough to ultimately win the grant. That effort could be impacted without a new funding initiative or other aid.
As for customers, annual tax bills will still be on the rise in July, but not as fast.
The green bars are the already-approved rates for the coming years-- approximately 15 percent in three years. The gray bars show the Much higher, and now-canceled proposed hikes.
The district is also hiring a new General Manager who will help with direction and with meeting any new state or federal mandates.