Outraged residents have mounted a petition drive aimed at forcing city officials to refund $9 million in sewer fees that were collected for water-treatment plant improvements but were never used.
“We overpaid, and now they only want to give us 10% back,” said Rene Michaud, who is heading the petition drive launched last week. “And all without telling us what they are going to do with the rest of the money.”
The Burbank City Council could have cut sewer fees by 22.7% during a regular meeting last week, but instead it voted 3 to 2 to cut fees by only 10% and use the surplus 12.7% to preserve the savings account that accumulated with the higher sewer fees.
When residents heard of the pared-down rebate, they organized a campaign to get the money back.
Michaud, a car salesman, and Jim Gordon, a founding member of the Burbank Flatlander Home Protection League, have already passed out thousands of petitions to residents who telephoned them after the council’s action last Tuesday.
“Our support is not along partisan lines either,” Gordon said. “They stole money from every home and business in the city.”
The men hope to gather at least 5,000 signatures and present them to the Burbank City Council at its Aug. 22 council meeting.
The 10% cut will drop sewer charges for the average single-family home from $17.56 to $15.80 a month beginning in September. A 22.7% cut would have dropped monthly rates to $13.57, according to a city report.
The city began increasing sewer service charges six years ago to pay for bonds it expected it would need to cover its portion of operation costs and improvements at the Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant near Los Angeles International Airport and at Burbank’s own water treatment plant, said Assistant City Manager Steve Helvey.
But the city’s water use declined over the years, partly because of the departure of the Lockheed Corp. Hyperion officials discovered that their estimated rates decreased, and the Burbank Department of Public Works found that there was no need to expand its sewage treatment plant, Helvey said.
“But rebates are not black-and-white,” Helvey said. “How do we determine who gets the rebate? Do we do an across-the-board rebate or just to those who paid thousands of dollars in sewer fees? Or should we keep it so we can pay cash for future capital improvements? The council is still looking into these things.”
City officials said there are no specific plans for the $9 million and that the money will be kept in the city’s sewer fund, collecting interest, until they decide what to do with it.
City Councilmen Ted McConkey and Bob Kramer, who both voted against the 10% cut, said they wanted the city to give a full rebate.
“We collected it, we didn’t need it, and now we should give it back,” McConkey said. “We were elected to manage the city’s money, not the residents’ money.”
Kramer said the city’s treatment plant will eventually need to be expanded, but that the project could be postponed until the next decade.
“We could reduce the rates by almost 23% and still go years without raising rates again,” Kramer said.
Michaud said he wants the full rebate, or residents may have to continue their campaign with a class-action lawsuit.
“I wanted to go with a petition first, but if it doesn’t work, I’ll hire a local attorney,” Michaud said. “But the idea is to save money, not spend it on litigation.”