In the two decades she's lived in Cambria, Elizabeth Bettenhausen has heard a lot of talk about Cambria's aging water and sewer infrastructure.
To address this looming issue, the Cambria Community Services District (CCSD) is proposing a rate increase of 19.2 percent for its water services and 24.2 percent for sewer services, spread out over the next three years. CCSD officials say the need to replace and upgrade infrastructure is the impetus for the increases, but ratepayers like Bettenhausen have questions.
- Cover File Photo By Dylan Honea-baumann
- WATER WOES Santa Rosa Creek is one of Cambria's major water sources, but Cambria Community Services District officials say the infrastructure to distribute that water to consumers is wearing out. They're calling for a water and sewer rate increase to fund infrastructure improvements.
"Over time, infrastructure wears out and needs to be replaced in order to continue to service. ... I think that's a justified issue in some specifics," Bettenhausen told New Times. "However, they have used that as the one of the criteria justifying a proposed rate increase since I got here."
Bettenhausen took to Facebook to inform fellow Cambrians that rate increases are on the table. At its March 17 meeting, the CCSD board moved for the proposal to go forward and undergo the Proposition 218 hearing and protest process that's required for rate increases.
"It is VERY important that CCSD ratepayers realize a major choice is before each and every one of us," Bettenhausen wrote in a March 18 comment in the Cambria Currents Facebook group. "If you do not want them to raise your rates, you must send in a protest form."
As required by Proposition 218, the CCSD will hold a hearing at its May 19 meeting to receive any protests from community members about the rate increases, CCSD General Manager John Weigold told New Times. For the rate increase to be overturned, more than 50 percent of the customer base would need to send in a formal protest.
Weigold said a mailer detailing the hearing process was sent out by April 1, and all customers and parcel owners should receive it by the following week. The protest form can also be accessed online at cambriacsd.org/proposition-218.
"I think the chances are very good that I will file a Prop. 218 protest," Bettenhausen said March 29, before the mailers went out. "I do not say that absolutely at the moment, because ... I don't know what they're going to claim in the notice."
- Graphic By Leni Litonjua, Data From Ccsd
- RATE SPIKES The Cambria Community Services District is proposing a water and sewer rate increase spread out over the next three years, but some locals aren't happy about it.
After hearing about the need for infrastructure updates for years, Bettenhausen feels frustrated that these projects have been put off. She and other residents wonder where revenue from past rate increases has gone.
"It's not evident to me that they have had, until the current finance manager, adequate oversight of expenditures and revenue," she added. "So you get these claims about, 'We need to do X,' without having documented why that claim was invented."
CCSD Board member Harry Farmer said he understands the community's frustrations.
"But we're really, really in need of the funding for water and wastewater, especially the wastewater department," Farmer told New Times. "I think most people are concerned about, well, 'How has the previous ratepayers' money been spent? Can we trust the district to spend the money the way they say they're going to?'"
Farmer said when he was elected to the CCSD board, one of his main concerns was infrastructure improvements.
"There's been minor improvements, but not the major ones that were necessary. ... Over the past three years, [we've been] determining what needs to be done and how to do it," Farmer said, referring to a Sustainable Solutions Turnkey Program conducted with PG&E over the last few years to identify the district's capital project needs.
One of the major priorities identified is getting the wastewater plant "up to speed," General Manager Weigold said.
"When I came into the general manager role in 2019, one of the outside engineers told me that there's nothing in this plant that is not beyond its service life," Weigold said. "Which is basically telling me, you've got to build a whole new plant or replace it piece by piece—extraordinarily expensive. So we're not going to do that, we're going to cull the list down and see what we can do, piece by piece, over several years."
Weigold added that Cambria's decreasing population—6,032 in 2010 down to 5,678 in 2020, according to census data—also plays a role in increasing service costs.
"The population is shrinking, so that's going to have an impact on rates and fees in the future," Weigold said. "With fewer full-time residents using water, they all pay the base rate, but there's fewer people paying the usage rate."
Yet, others say pricey utilities are the very reason why they left the coastal town.
"After 37 years in Cambria, I made the move to another state in 2021," Facebook user Steve Crimmel wrote. "On a musician's income, I just couldn't continue to bleed money. My last two-month water bill was $554."
Those who have stuck around and will be subject to the rate increases are wary about where the revenue will be going.
Cambria resident Christina Tobin led an online petition in 2018 against the last rate increase. She told New Times about an investigation launched in 2019 by the Taxpayer Education Foundation (TEF), an organization headed at the time by her late father, Jim Tobin. TEF's report found that pensions for more than a third of currently retired CCSD government employees will exceed $1 million over the course of their lives. One retired employee's pension will be nearly $4.3 million, assuming a normal life expectancy, according to the report.
"The reality of the situation is that if you have your budget allocated toward pensions, you're not putting your budget allocation toward other things," said Matthew Schultz, executive director of TEF. "They have to get the money somehow—raising rates is a potential revenue source."
Tobin is concerned that another water rate increase will be used to fund CCSD government pensions.
Board member Farmer said that while he finds the pensions alarmingly high, "it's doubtful that the majority of ratepayers' monies, including recent rate increases, are funding these outrageous amounts."
For Tobin, it comes back to a lack of trust between residents and their governing body.
"The only way that we're going to build trust between the residents, the ratepayers of Cambria, is by electing more accountable, honest individuals," she said. "That will build that trust." Δ
Reach Staff Writer Malea Martin at firstname.lastname@example.org.