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Council Waste-Water Study Session Ends in Same Old Sewer Fight

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The latest round in the City Council’s sewer fight--its seemingly endless stalemate over the upgrade of the Hill Canyon Wastewater Treatment Plant--preceded chaotically Tuesday with countless verbal jabs, but no concessions.

Intended to be a thought-provoking study session where council members discussed the details of the aging plant, Tuesday’s meeting quickly broke down into bickering and vitriol despite the efforts of a professional facilitator.

After listening to a former state legislator discuss the intent of a law he wrote--one of the main sticking points of the lingering impasse--council members argued with each other about what the man had just said.

Former Bay Area Assemblyman Dominic L. Cortese was one of several experts flown in by Thousand Oaks to shed light on the sewage dispute.

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“I think we might have trapped Mr. Cortese into saying something he did not mean to say,” Councilwoman Elois Zeanah said.

“I think what he said was pretty clear,” said Councilman Andy Fox.

The Thousand Oaks City Council has been arguing over the upgrade to the sewer plant--needed to comply with state and federal health and safety requirements--since the summer of 1995. Built in the 1960s, the facility is at about 83% of its 10-million-gallon daily capacity. Much of its equipment is outdated or worn out.

City public works officials have proposed a 15-year, $75-million plan to take care of Thousand Oaks’ long-term sewage needs. They propose existing residents pay for about 30% of the plan, while future residents would pay for the rest in the form of the sewer connection fees they assume from developers as part of the cost of buying homes.

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The funding plan was devised to comply with the Cortese-sponsored law--commonly known as AB 1600, for its former legislative bill number--that requires cities to show a reasonable relationship between the fees they charge developers for public improvements and how much those builders benefit.

Although he was careful not to choose sides in the sewer fight, Cortese made it clear that cities must show a fair relationship between the amount they charge developers and residents. He said that he could not tell the City Council what that relationship should be, and stressed that it was up to experts and the city’s own public works director to make that recommendation.

That, in a nutshell, is what city officials have done with their $75-million plan.

“You’re boxed in,” Cortese said. “You have to say what the developer is going to pay and what the user is going to pay. And you have to make that decision based on the testimony of your experts.”

Councilwomen Zeanah and Linda Parks contend the $75-million plan is larger and more expensive than necessary. They have also questioned whether existing residents should have to pay for part of it, though both said in a news conference last month that they would agree to raise sewer fees for more modest sewer plant improvements.

State law requires a four-fifths vote to raise sewer rates. Thousand Oaks’ current average sewer rate of $12.30 is one of the lowest in Ventura County.

Councilmen Fox, Mike Markey and Mayor Judy Lazar have continuously expressed support for city staff’s more ambitious plan, saying it is a conservative long-term proposal that would cover some potential federal environmental requirements that may never happen.

Those three council members, however, have said in recent weeks that they would consider alternative plans, if they meet the city’s needs and the law.

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State law requires Thousand Oaks to expand the plant’s capacity and upgrade its components to meet health and safety standards.

By failing to do so, the city could lose its permit to operate the sewer plant, which could result in a state-imposed moratorium on growth. It could also result in lawsuits from developers and businesses, who could argue that Thousand Oaks was illegally curtailing growth.

The State Water Resources Control Board has warned Thousand Oaks that it could be forced to repay up to $12.5 million in water quality grants if the city does not soon approve a plan to repair its sewer plant.

Those same water officials concede, however, that such punitive action would not take place for years, if ever.


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