Prop. 218: No real protection in Apple Valley (April 22, 2015)

One of the Town of Apple Valley’s recent H2Ours pretexts for the hostile government seizure of Apple Valley Ranchos Water Company (AVRWC) is that under Town control of the water, the people have a greater say in setting water rates.

The Town Government has even disingenuously stated the citizens would have the right to vote on increases in water rates.

This is refuted both by Apple Valley’s own past history, and the very structure of Prop. 218.

What is Prop. 218?

According to CaliforniaTaxData.com: In November 1996, California voters passed Prop. 218, the Right to Vote on Taxes Act. This constitutional amendment protects taxpayers by limiting the methods by which local governments can create or increase taxes, fees, and charges without taxpayer consent. Prop. 218 requires voter approval prior to imposition or increase of general taxes, assessments, and certain user fees.

The citizens’ right to ’vote on increases in water rates’

The Town’s assertion that the citizens would have the right to vote on increases in water rates implies that this would happen automatically. It doesn’t, and revisiting the Town’s 75 percent increases in sewer rates since 2008 proves that. (Sewer rates fall under the same Prop. 218 restrictions.)

During the last sewer rate increase imposed by the Apple Valley Town Council, the body spent 20 minutes discussing it. There was no public vote on whether or not to increase the sewer rates.

The increase before that? Four minutes.

Putting increases to a vote

Although any rate increases must be noticed to the public, there are several huge hurdles that must be met to get the issue on a ballet before voters would get to exercise this right to vote on increases in water rates.

Article XIII D, section 6(a)(2) of Prop. 218 provides that a property-related fee or charge may not be imposed or increased if a majority of owners of identified parcels submit written protests.

While a public hearing (i.e. Town Council meeting) to raise rates is required (just as a public hearing with the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) is required for AVRWC), the public hearing must be held not less than forty-five calendar days after the mailing of the notice.

That means that a rate payer could have as little as a month and a half to coordinate a campaign to get thousands of Apple Valley residents to submit letters of protest to any rate increase — something that is nearly impossible for anyone without big dollars behind him.

In other words, if AVRWC wants a rate increase, it has to apply for permission to the CPUC: Any proposal can be opposed by voters, the Town Council, etc., and the CPUC doesn’t simply rubber-stamp rate increases, especially not with its Office of Ratepayer Advocates examining everything. However, if the Town of Apple Valley wants a rate increase, it is essentially the sole authority that decides if it’s own proposal is worthy. Third-party oversight is virtually absent.

Then what is the point of Prop. 218?

Prop. 218 is a useful tool for new taxes and new rates, which automatically require items to go to the ballot in most cases. There, voters have more leverage because the hurdles to challenge a tax or rate increase are much lower.

Prop. 218 is better than nothing at all, but in the case of Apple Valley and the Town Council’s history, it is really no protection at all against rate increases.

Greg Raven is Co-Chair of Apple Valley Citizens for Government Accountability, and is concerned about quality of life issues.