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Los Osos residents object to sewer rate increases during COVID-19 

"Unconstitutional." "Undemocratic." "An injustice."

That's how some Los Osos residents are describing the process around San Luis Obispo County's proposed new sewer rates for the bayside town, which are currently set for a final hearing at the Board of Supervisors' April 21 meeting.

click to enlarge RATE HIKES Some Los Osos residents are protesting SLO County adopting new sewer rates during the coronavirus crisis. - FILE PHOTO
  • File Photo
  • RATE HIKES Some Los Osos residents are protesting SLO County adopting new sewer rates during the coronavirus crisis.

The county put forward a new five-year rate schedule that has an initial increase of about 6 percent in 2020-21. By year five, Los Osos property owners would see their average monthly sewer bill rise to about $200—a 19 percent hike over today's charges.

The Board of Supervisors introduced the new rates on Feb. 25—and then notified affected property owners by mail as required by Proposition 218. If a majority of property owners submit protest ballots by April 21, the board cannot enact the new rates.

But many residents feel that the COVID-19 shelter-at-home order, which took effect midway through the Proposition 218 process, has effectively squelched their voices and made it impossible to mount a protest campaign against the rates.

They're calling on the county to suspend the hearing and start the whole process over once the pandemic subsides.

"To me, it just seems like it's a travesty, an injustice," said Vita Miller, a Los Osos resident who's taken to social media to rally community members against the new rates. "We are not able to go out into the community to spread the word about this. We'd for sure be having tabling going at farmers' markets, possibly leaving flyers on people's doors. We needed to be able to get the word out, and we couldn't."

The topic has generated considerable buzz on social media, with residents venting on platforms like Nextdoor and Facebook.

"A lot of people on our Nextdoor site here are very angry about it," Miller said.

Community members are also frustrated about their lack of access to the supervisors and their public meetings.

Due to COVID-19, SLO County has prohibited the public from attending its meetings. Residents can submit written public comments for the record or leave pre-recorded voicemails that are played during the meetings.

But watchful Los Osos citizens feel that this is yet another way their voices are being disenfranchised during the Proposition 218 process.

"Right now, we're in a global pandemic and we have a stay-at-home order, and the Board of Supervisors is going to have a meeting where the public cannot participate—you have to participate before the meeting ever starts," said Julie Tacker, a resident and local government activist. "It's difficult enough to get people to a hearing, but now the doors are locked."

As of press time, SLO County appeared to be moving forward with the April 21 hearing. In an April 6 Facebook post, 2nd District Supervisor Bruce Gibson, who represents Los Osos, said the board will likely delay imposing the first step of the rate increases until after the COVID-19 crisis is over. That's what the board did at its last meeting on March 24 for water rate increases in Shandon.

"My colleagues and I are quite aware of the current economic challenges our residents face," Gibson wrote in his post. "This path was chosen because other options would eventually cost the ratepayers more."

County officials say the higher sewer rates are necessary to cover their operational costs and build up adequate reserve funds. But opponents argue that the financial shortfalls can be attributed to miscalculations and missteps at the county that the Los Osos community is now being asked to pay for.

"They should've planned better and they apparently didn't," Miller said. "I'm not objecting to any rate increase in the future, [but] this is not the time. ... These aren't normal times. This is a pandemic. Why would you go forward with this meeting?" Δ

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