MARTINEZ -- Residents from Martinez to San Ramon and places in between will pay 18 percent higher sewer rates over the next two years after Central Contra Costa Sanitary District trustees voted Thursday to approve the hike to meet rising employee pension costs.
Single-family homeowners, who pay $371 annually, will see their rates go up $34 over the next two years until it reaches $439 a year. The board voted 4-1 to pass the increase, with board member Tad Pilecki the lone dissenter. Trustees also gave themselves an option to repeal or lower the second-year increase at a public hearing next year if they can find savings elsewhere.
More than 105,000 legally mandated notices were mailed to ratepayers, with only 67 filing legal protests. About two dozen members of the public attended the meeting Thursday, and a handful of speakers chastised the board for raising fees.
Mike Arata of Danville called the board's December approval of a new 5-year labor contract with the district's employees that included raises and no pension spiking restrictions "unconscionable." He said before the district considered rate hikes it should "sidetrack the Central San gravy train," handing out a spreadsheet to audience members that showed all 256 full-time district employees' total 2011 compensation, including 64 making more than $100,000 in base salary.
Next year, the agency plans to spend more on benefits for employees and retirees ($37 million) than on salaries ($27 million).
The district has started paying $5 million annually to pay down its unfunded liability.
Trustee David Williams, who voted against the new labor pacts last year, voted for the rate hikes, saying his hands were tied because employee contracts were locked until the end of 2017. Pilecki, who voted against the union contract and the hikes, proposed an alternative rate increase of $20 a year over the next two years, suggesting the district leave 15 unfilled posts vacant and use $3 million in unspent capital funds to offset the smaller rate increase.
"We have never really tightened our belts," he said.
Colleagues felt his numbers were too arbitrary and needed more research from staff to determine the impact of not filling those open jobs.
Board chair James Nejedly, who has served for 16 years, said the district's pension obligations skyrocketed after the county retirement agency stopped pooling outside agencies. The sanitation district's attempts to pay down its unfunded liability, he said, is "a damn good step toward fixing the problem."
He also reminded audience members that rates eventually go up, no matter what.
"You're going to pay the freight at some point," he said.
Contact Matthias Gafni at 925-952-5026. Follow him at Twitter.com/mgafni.