Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

Doug Vagim to Blong, Oliver, Sal: Let the people decide!

Democracy’s spotlight is again on Blong Xiong, Oliver Baines and Sal Quintero.

Doug Vagim turned it on. The light could get very bright.

Xiong is Fresno City Council president. Baines and Quintero are fellow council members. Vagim is a former Fresno County supervisor.

As you may recall, Xiong, Baines and Quintero opposed Mayor Ashley Swearengin’s efforts to outsource the city’s residential trash service. The council late last year adopted the outsourcing ordinance on several 4-3 votes. Xiong, Baines and Quintero were on the losing side. They then led a successful effort to put the fate of the outsourcing ordinance in the hands of voters.

Xiong, Baines and Quintero said the outsourcing decision was too important to be left in the City Council’s hands. “Let the people decide,” Xiong, Baines and Quintero said.

Vagim was part of the Xiong-Baines-Quintero team.

The people in the June 4 Measure G special election delivered their decision. Outsourcing was killed.

If Vagim has his way, the people will now turn their attention to Measure W.

If that happens, the big question is: Will Xiong, Baines and Quintero join Vagim in again calling upon the sacred will of the people?

The City Council on Thursday voted to begin the 45-day public protest process on proposed water rates.

Public Utilities Director Patrick Wiemiller says the city needs a $410 million upgrade to its water system. That would include some new water pipes and some rehabilitated pump stations. The main expense is a nearly $227 million surface water treatment plant for southeast Fresno.

The complex project would secure a stable water supply for a city that keeps growing and growing, Wiemiller says.

Residential and commercial ratepayers will foot the bill. Monthly residential bills could double or triple in three years, depending on how much water is used. A typical residential customer how pays $24.49 a month. Residential customers could eventually see their annual water bills rise by $300 to $600.

Measure G failed in part because consumers — promised an immediate 17.6% rate cut from outsourcing along with future rate-hike caps — didn’t believe the City Council truly cared about their pocketbooks. Consumers thought the City Council would let rates skyrocket beyond the contractual limits.

Barely three weeks after the death of outsourcing, we come to the Proposition 218 protest process on proposed water rates. Former County Supervisor Vagim doesn’t like the huge hikes. He says an upgrade may be necessary, but it’s wrong to make ratepayers pick up most of the tab. He told the council as much on Thursday.

If I correctly understood Vagim’s explanation, the Proposition 218 protest process gives consumers a chance to kill the rate hikes through a protest vote. Consumers — an estimated 130,000 of them — will each get a protest ballot in the mail from City Hall. If more than half return the ballot, the proposed rate structure dies.

Vagim says there’s almost no chance this will happen. He says he’ll be stunned if 1,200 ballots are returned.

If the protest process fizzles, the council sometime in August will vote on water rates. The council can keep the same rates, lower them or raise them.

New water rates could arrive by early fall.

Vagim fears the worst. That’s why he’s already pursuing Plan B.

There’s a precedent for Vagim’s Plan B in Fresno’s representative democracy. That precedent is Measure G.

After losing their anti-outsourcing campaign in the council chamber, Xiong, Baines and Quintero joined forces with many allies to overturn the decision. State election law says a new municipal ordinance can be placed on a special-election ballot before it goes into effect. All it takes is a petition signed by 10% of the city’s registered voters. Signature-gatherers have 30 days to collect them. Fresno at the time had about 220,000 registered voters. Xiong, Baines, Quintero and their allies collected more than 27,000 valid signatures. They did most of the work in far less than 30 days.

Vagim says a similar initiative procedure applies to Proposition 218 and City Hall’s proposed water-rate hikes. But, Vagim adds, the bar to put the hikes on a special ballot is much lower than the one faced by outsourcing opponents.

Vagim says water rate-hike opponents would need the signatures of only about 4,900 registered voters in Fresno to trigger the special election.

Doug and I chatted by phone on Friday afternoon. If I understood him correctly, the petition’s mandate would be 5% of Fresnans who voted in the last gubernatorial election. Vagim said that’s about 98,000. Five percent of 98,000 is 4,900.

Those 4,900 signatures would be gathered from Fresno’s entire pool of registered voters — about 220,000. In other words, the signatures of about 2.3% of Fresno’s registered voters would do the trick.

Vagim says he’s going to try to get enough signatures to put City Hall’s proposed water-rate hikes on the ballot of the June 2014 primary election. He says it was Measure G for Garbage, so he’ll call it Measure W for Water.

Vagim says he already has a group of supporters, but gives few details. He says there are a bunch of administrative chores to do before petitions hit the streets. For example, he says, should the election include county islands since those homeowners also get city water? He says he’d love to include the county islands, saying he thinks county homeowners would be even more inclined to reject the city’s proposed rate hikes (lots of big lots there).

“I believe the people of Fresno with Measure G got a good taste of what they can do,” Vagim says. “Measure G showed they can fight City Hall. I’m doing this (with the water rates) because I want to give people a chance to have their voices heard.”

Vagim’s concerns with the proposed water-rate hikes mirror many of the arguments made by Xiong, Baines, Quintero and their allies during the anti-outsourcing campaign.

Vagim says the public hearing process on the water-rate hikes is being rushed. He says justification for the hikes is complex, yet hasn’t been fully vetted by the public. He says City Hall is exaggerating when it claims the water system is falling apart. He says upgrades paid by the higher rates will benefit a relatively few Fresnans rather than everyone. He says some of the biggest beneficiaries of the higher water rates will be the for-profit companies selling the construction bonds. He says City Hall can’t be trusted, so the people must decide.

As you may recall, outsourcing opponents said the outsourcing process was rushed. They said justification for outsourcing was complex, yet hadn’t been fully vetted by the public. They said Swearengin was exaggerating when she claimed city finances would fall apart without outsourcing. They said outsourcing would benefit only a few Fresnans rather than everyone. They said the biggest beneficiary of outsourcing would be the for-profit hauler, Mid Valley Disposal. They said City Hall can’t be trusted, so the people must decide.

There’s even a similarity in graphics. The anti-outsourcing people made effective use in their campaign of a graphic that showed current city trash rates compared to the trash rates charged by for-profit haulers in other major California cities, most of them on the coast. The message to voters: This is where your trash rates are headed with Mid Valley.

City officials on Thursday presented the council with a graphic that showed Fresno’s water rates, even with the proposed big hikes spread over the next four fiscal years, would be paying less than residential water customers in other major California cities, most of them on the coast. Even if Public Utilities gets its four years of huge rate hikes, Vagim says, more and perhaps bigger rate hikes are sure to come.

Vagim says he’s not against higher water rates. He says he just wants them to be thoroughly justified by in-depth, rational, unbiased research.

The enemy among outsourcing opponents was a Mid Valley Disposal that supposedly had convinced Swearengin and a council majority to do something that would harm the public.

The enemy with Vagim is a niche of big-time developers that supposedly is trying to convince Swearengin and the council to do something that would harm the public. That “something” is getting all Fresno water ratepayers to foot the bill for water-system upgrades in areas where the developers plan to go next. Vagim says the developers and their homebuyers should pay that bill.

“I just want the right people to pick up the tab,” Vagim says.

I don’t know if Vagim is right about the threshold of approximately 4,900 valid voter signatures. If he is, he just might succeed in making Measure W another stirring chapter in Fresno democracy.

The anti-outsourcing people had three city unions, three City Council members, a Fresno County supervisor (Henry R. Perea), a state Assembly Member (Henry T. Perea), much of the Democratic Party and a significant portion of the Republican Party on their side. They had to collect the signatures of 22,000 registered voters. Their message on their petition drive: Fresnans on fixed incomes can’t risk leaving the outsourcing decision in the hands of a seven-member council.

Vagim has to collect a mere 4,900 valid signatures. I’m guessing the same politicians and unions and community activists who fought side-by-side with Vagim against outsourcing will want to join forces with Vagim to put water rates on the June 2014 ballot. After all, logic suggests the same Fresnans on fixed incomes who can’t risk leaving a decision on outsourcing to a seven-member council also can’t risk leaving a decision on the doubling or tripling of home water rates to that same seven-member council.

Then again, maybe Vagim will be left twisting in the wind by his anti-outsourcing allies. Maybe the doubling or tripling of home water rates is good for “the people.” Public Utilities Director Patrick Wiemiller certainly makes a strong case for this.

And as to Council President Xiong and Council Members Baines and Quintero — maybe they’re in the clutches of circumstance in a way that makes the will of the people through direct democracy an altogether terrible idea.

That $227 million surface water treatment plant … that’ll be built in Sal’s district. People are flocking to southeast Fresno. The groundwater there has big problems. Sal can simply vote for higher water rates citywide to pay for everything he needs in southeast Fresno, then work to kill Vagim’s democratic dream. Or Sal can work with Vagim to have voters citywide decide if they want to pay double or triple on their water bills so southeast Fresno gets everything it needs.

Much of the old water infrastructure that needs repairing and replacing is in the oldest parts of town. We’re talking downtown and west Fresno. Those happen to be in Oliver’s district. Oliver can simply vote for higher rates citywide to pay for everything he needs in downtown and west Fresno, then work to kill Vagim’s democratic dream. Or Oliver can work with Vagim to have voters citywide decide if they want to pay double or triple on their water bills so downtown and west Fresno get everything they need.

Blong merely needs to ponder this equation: Westlake (in his district) — Uptown development (plagued by old water infrastructure) — Assemi family — District 1 incumbent termed out in 18 months. Blong can simply vote for higher rates citywide to pay for everything needed in Uptown, then work to kill Vagim’s democratic dream. Or Blong can work with Vagim to have voters citywide decide if they want to pay double or triple on their water bills so uptown gets everything it needs.

Vagim says City Hall would have to pay only about $60,000 to put Measure W on the June 2014 ballot.

“If 5,000 people are interested in this, it would be worth the investment,” Vagim says.

City Hall’s bill for Measure G could be close to $1 million.


Tobie says:

The reason a very small amount of the protests will probably be returned is because the City sends the notices out looking like some type of newsletter or water content report and not an absentee ballot as does the County Election Department. Most people will never open them or will even toss them as soon as they get them thinking it’s just another report.

The city for some reason has chosen not to include any advance information about the potential rate hike in the newsletter that comes with our bill each month. They’ve known they were going to pursue the increased water rates for several months now.

Also, for a protest to count either the property owner or the tenant must do so in writing – that’s signed and has the parcel’s APN (Assessor’s Parcel Number) written in. How many tenants know the APN for the property they are renting and pay the city water utility bill?

Other cities allow for the site address where the service is charged to be written in by the signer of the protest. But not the City of Fresno they insist the APN be provided in order for a protest to count.

Sounds like a voter suppression tactic to me and that’s why so few protests are returned and even less are counted as valid.

JO says:

Are we talking north vs south here? Fort decades the north has boomed at the expense of the south; the south has helped subsidize the infrastructure in the north that made this boom possible. The trouble with the now needed infrastructure work in the south is that it has been put off and delayed for too long; it is something that should had been done long ago. That is there should have been more of a balance between the northern and southern parts of town. Now the south is playing catch up. The more the work is put off the more it will cost, and the more the southern part of town will go down hill. If the southern part of town is again ignored, it will be nothing new in Fresno.

Howard K. Watkins says:

One thing I would hope the Mayor, her staff, and the City Council majority would have learned from Measure G is to have meaningful public workshops in each Council District where the facts on the City’s water needs can be presented and questions by citizens can be answered. The formal City Council hearings on Measure G were a joke, as 90%+ of the speakers at the 3 Council hearings last December spoke against outsourcing, raised numerous issues, and asked several key questions, which the Council majority never answered. The City Council hearings do not provide for a two-way discussion/Q & A, which is what is needed.

Tobie says:

Jo: Were talking East here and not the North vs. the South as you put it. Pretty much all the maintenance stuff needed in the South is already in the reserve fund and was included in the last round of rate hikes (2007-2012) for the City’s Public Utilities Department Water Division.

The vast amount of money generated from these new proposed rates going up 3-times will be spent for the new growth areas on the extreme East side of town where agricultural land will turn into more urban sprawl! Based on your observation that truly will be an example of “nothing new in Fresno.”

JO says:

That is sort of what I ment I guess, I just put it in a north/south content. I am against urban sprawl. But I am a firm believer in also having good modern infrastructure in older parts of town. This is really my primary concern.

Tobie says:

Mine too, however there’s absolutely no guarantee that any of these extra funds from these rate increases will be spent outside of new east side growth area. There was supposably lots of money in the last round of rate increases for these maintenance projects that I guess was spent somewhere else.

We still haven’t received an accounting on how that money was spent and how much is in reserve from the last rate increase (2007-2012) and now they want more?

Ed Vagim says:

I will sign up.

Mac City says:

I wonder if Mr. Vagim will also be protesting the PG&E rate increase which was noticed on Friday of last week in the print Fresno Bee, right below the article about Fresno City Council getting the ball rolling on higher water rates?

JO says:

I just now received the city mailer regarding the rate increases. It states the water treatment plant and infrastructure are needed because by 2025, the goal is to convert the city to 100% surface water by 2025. It states that upcoming new federal water standards for contaminants may shut down many wells – especially in southeast Fresno (I can just see the bottled water companies rejoicing over Measure W). The city needs to better explain their reasons for the new infrastructure. The people who are proposing Measure W also need to explain their way of thinking.

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