Oct 5 2014

OPINION: Sewers Will Benefit from City Fund Balances

On October 6 the City Council will consider transferring funds into the Sewer Fund to move forward with completing the mainline sewer rehabilitation. This is a significant first in Piedmont, to have funds transferred into the Sewer Fund rather than taken out. The Sewer Fund has essentially operated as a City slush fund.

In 2011, City Hall asked for an additional $11 Million dollars from taxpayers which would have added an additional 50% tax burden on top of an already expensive sewer tax. That 2011 tax failed, and earlier this year staff estimated only $1 Million was needed to complete the previously stated $11M compliance and construction work.

Piedmont has always maintained compliance with all EPA and Water Resources Quality Board legal requirements. A fair question is why $11 Million was needed 3 years ago, and is now down to $1M? Fortuitously, a real estate transfer tax windfall of an additional $1M, and other cost cuts, means no additional taxpayer money is needed to complete the mainline sewer system. Most of the Council also recognized when rescinding Mr. Wieler’s transfer tax plan earlier this year that taxpayers want more accountability of where their tax dollars will go, and an efficient use of their funds.

During the very troubled Piedmont Hill Underground Utility District debacle, with taxpayers paying in excess of two million dollars for private benefit, the Crest Road utility trench collapsed on Oct. 13 2009. The trench would not have existed but for the private benefit undergrounding project. Staff recommended on Nov. 16 2009 that $296,000 be taken from the Sewer Fund for repairs; the sewer fund is a publicly funded source. Council agreed. Staff stated a month after the collapse that installation of trench dams was the necessary repair. On Oct. 14 2009, the City Engineer directed that the trench be filled with low-pressure concrete; by Nov. 16 this was largely completed. The installation of the trench dams, standard construction practice on a steep slope and missing in the original construction, would have required that hundreds of cubic yards of the freshly poured cement be excavated. No trench dams were ever installed and the $296,000 was paid by general tax revenue and not taken from the private undergrounding district’s contingency funds.

Perhaps just a coincidence, but at the time the 2011 sewer tax failed the Blair Park project was pulled. The actual expenses for that project were never fully disclosed and I question how the sewer fund would have been further used had the additional tax passed. I speculate that the overflowing sewer fund may have been a source of funding for the new 25 home sewer line and 24 inch EBMUD transmission line relocation.

The current temporary transfer into the Sewer Fund makes sense; it is essentially a near zero interest loan. Hopefully, when the sewer rehabilitation is completed, the same spirit as now prevails in City Hall will remain and the sewer tax enacted in 2000 will be eliminated. Other prudent accounting practices have recently been undertaken with a closer look at the $900,000 automatically appropriated annually from the Sewer Fund and moved into the General Fund.

Moving ahead now with Phase V of the sewer rehabilitation is smart. Finally under Mayor Fujioka’s forward looking leadership and coupled with the transparent professionalism of City Administrator Benoit, we are taking financially prudent proactive measures.

Rich Schiller, Piedmont Resident

Editors’ Note: The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Piedmont Civic Association.

One Response to “OPINION: Sewers Will Benefit from City Fund Balances”

  1. Once again, Rick has provided us with a thoughtful and concise assessment of the issues at hand. Thank you Rick.

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