It took less than two months for the City of Long Beach to challenge the results of a lawsuit it lost to a resident challenging the city’s practice of charging its own water department fees for access to its water and sewer lines, but this challenge will likely be resolved at the ballot box, not inside a courtroom.
Less than two months after settling the suit, one that resulted in the city facing the prospect of an annual hit to its general fund of about $7 million, the city’s elected officials are pursuing an amendment to the city’s charter that would legally allow it to continue with the fees assessed to the water department as well as transfer revenue from city utilities to the general fund.
The city had been charging those fees to the Long Beach Water Department since the early 2000s and transferring the balance of the fees into the city’s general fund to help finance city expenses. However, the suit filed by Long Beach resident Diana Lejins challenged the practice as “bogus” claiming that the fees were not related to providing water service and that the fees did not benefit water customers in any way.
The city settled the case filed with Lejins, promising to return some $12 million back to the city’s water and sewer funds and reducing the amount it charges the department by more than half. The reduced fees will have an impact on future budgets, something discussed by the city council during a meeting last month where they were presented with the prospects of growing budget deficits in light of recent litigation, including Lejins’.
Over $8 million of the projected $15.6 million budget deficit for the 2019 fiscal year was attributed to the settlement over the pipeline fees, something that city budget manager Lea Eriksen said could be mitigated if the council decided to take the issue to the polls.
“That would mean that voters would allow the city to go back to the status quo and continue to receive the revenue that would be lost otherwise,” Ericksen said at the December 19 meeting. “That $8.3 million is the amount that could be tackled by the Charter Amendment.”
So, next Wednesday the council and Mayor Robert Garcia will meet at city hall to discuss a possible charter amendment that would allow the city to continue to charge the water department the fees that were in place prior to the settlement, ones that were bringing over $10 million in revenue to the general fund on an annual basis.
It creates language that would allow for balances of no more than 12 percent of city-run utilities’ revenue funds to be transferred to the city’s general fund to finance city services like public safety, parks and libraries. If the council moves forward with the effort it would be up for a vote during the June 5 general election and could be approved with a majority of voter approval.
The impact to customers could be about $3 per month if the measure were to be approved, the amount the city said each customers’ bill had been reduced by as a result of the settlement in November.
A vote is not expected at next Wednesday’s meeting as the council is required by state law to hold more than one public meeting prior to taking a vote to approve a ballot measure. The meeting is scheduled to begin at 5:00PM at City Hall.
Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or @JasonRuiz__LB on Twitter.
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