When a 64-year-old La Crescenta woman learned last month that her sewer bills were about to more than double, she said she got so mad, "I blew my stack!"
Marjorie Falloure said she supports herself on a meager disability income in her home of 38 years, a tiny one-bedroom, one-bath cottage on a large lot. She said she wasn't prepared to pay the sewer bill she got last month, up from the usual $16.80 bimonthly charge to $40--a 138% increase.
As soon as she learned of the rate increase, Falloure said she "typed up a petition and started carrying it around the block."
The rates were raised in September by the Crescenta Valley County Water District to pay the community's projected $8-million share of about $3.4 billion in improvements and additions to the Hyperion Sewage Treatment Plant in Los Angeles.
State and federal authorities mandated the changes years ago and gave the city of Los Angeles until 1998 to reduce the amount of pollution dumped into Santa Monica Bay.
The Crescenta Valley district raised its rates from $5.90 to $8.40 in 1986, when its share of the Hyperion improvements was estimated at $1.5 million, said Robert K. Argenio, district general manager. But costs have greatly escalated since. Argenio said the district was notified in May of the $8-million tab, and he predicts that the district's bill will climb still higher.
He said directors of the five-member water district board, a nonprofit state agency created by the voters in 1950, agonized for two months before approving the across-the-board sewer rate increase in July.
Before making its decision, the board considered basing sewer fees on water usage, allowing discounts for seniors and other alternatives, but found none to be equitable, he said.
"We had to move quickly because of the anticipated obligations that we have to meet," Argenio said. "We don't have the large reserves of money like, perhaps, the cities around us. We don't have sales taxes and property taxes. We are a fee-for-services agency."
The district's action drew little attention when it was taken in July. Few people turned out for a public hearing. The newly formed Crescenta Valley Town Council voiced its objections in August to local, state and federal officials, but to no avail.
Many residents said they were unaware of the rate increase until the two-month billings for September and October were sent out late last month.
That's when Falloure began her one-woman campaign.
Since then, her effort has erupted into a groundswell of protest over the sewer fees in this normally placid foothill community, a finger of unincorporated county territory between the northern annex of Glendale and La Canada Flintridge.
Falloure's phone rings almost constantly. More than 1,000 residents have signed her petitions. An angry crowd turned out at the usually dull council meeting this month. And a movement is under way to form a homeowners' association to represent the 23,000 residents of the community.
"I'm not a politically inclined person," said Falloure, a 5-foot-1 former phone company employee who became disabled three years ago because of a heart ailment. "I had never even attended a committee meeting in my life, let alone chair one."
Following a barrage of telephone calls from new-found supporters, Falloure called a public meeting this month at Crescenta Valley High School to organize a campaign against the sewer charge. More than 80 residents showed up.
One of them was Fred H. Squires, a retired consultant in urban programs and former head of the Los Angeles Redevelopment Agency. Squires has called a meeting Monday to take the first steps toward starting a homeowners' association. Squires said the group hopes "to create some kind of a cohesive organization that can speak with a unified voice."
Falloure and her supporters are angry that all households are being charged the same flat sewer fee, regardless of the number of occupants. They contend that a population boom is under way in the once sleepy community where houses previously occupied by families of four or less now are home to 10 or more people, usually immigrants.
"We're seeing more doubling and tripling in the home," Falloure said in an interview.
Water district officials said they cannot base a charge on the number of occupants. "How do you take a body count?" Argenio asked. "That could vary from month to month."
Falloure is demanding that the district base its sewer charges on the amount of water used by each household, just as Los Angeles does.
But district officials said that, too, would be unfair, because owners with large landscaped yards would be penalized for using water that does not enter the sewer system. "No matter how you slice it, its going to be inequitable," Argenio said.
He said the district will consider the proposal by residents to base sewer rates on water use, but that alternative will not be easily accommodated. Of the district's 8,000 water customers, only 5,500 households are connected to sewers.
For instance, about 2,200 customers in the Glendale annex area west of Pennsylvania Avenue receive water from Crescenta Valley but are connected to Glendale sewers, Argenio said. Other areas, such as portions of La Canada Flintridge, are connected to Crescenta Valley sewers, but get their water from an adjoining agency.
Yet Argenio doesn't discount the alternative. "Anything is possible," he said, "given enough time or money."
At the request of Falloure and representatives of the council, district directors agreed to meet with residents to explain the rate increase and to discuss alternatives. Residents also want an audit to determine if La Crescenta is being billed fairly. The meeting is expected to be held in early January.
Among alternatives the district is considering are revenue bonds or loans that could be used to pay the debt by spreading out payments over a period of 20 or 30 years, much like a home mortgage.
Burbank is considering selling bonds, which would be repaid by raising sewer rates by 15% a year, said Joy Hamilton, an administrative analyst with the public works department. She called the low but steady increases "easier to swallow."
The city of Los Angeles estimates that the average monthly residential charge for sewers, which is now $8.24, will climb to $23.07 during the next five years, said Fred Hoeptner, a financial manager for the Los Angeles Department of Public Works.
Glendale this year doubled its sewer charge--and expects to raise the rates again next year--to recover a $5 million paper debt the city has carried for users by using capitol improvement funds to pay the bills, said Brian Butler, Glendale director of finance.
Cities and agencies are hoping to get some help from the state, which has set aside $120 million a year in low-interest loans for each of the next four years to help finance the cost of meeting clean water standards.
But that money is not nearly enough to meet all the bills about to be sent out to neighboring cities by Los Angeles.
"The fact is the mailman is going to bring the bills through the front door and they have to be paid," Argenio said. "The directors are charged with seeing that the district has enough funds to meet its financial obligations."
Falloure added an additional twist to her campaign. She refused to pay the new sewer rate this month and instead sent the payment for her water bill, plus the usual $16.80 for the old sewer rate. Others said they are doing the same.
But that tactic won't work for long, according to district officials. Under the district rules, money received as payment of bills is applied first to the sewer charge, and the rest to the water bill. The district will shut off water to those who do not pay.