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SLO County raises Los Osos sewer rates, but delays implementation 

Despite the ongoing shelter-at-home order and substantial community opposition, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors voted on April 21 to raise Los Osos sewer rates, while agreeing to delay their implementation until after the COVID-19 emergency is over.

The county's five-year rate schedule will raise the average single-family wastewater bill to $199 per month, a roughly 20 percent increase over today's rates. Commercial properties will see a much higher increase, with their rates more than doubling under the schedule.

click to enlarge NEW RATES Despite community opposition, the SLO County Board of Supervisors approved new Los Osos sewer rates on April 21. - FILE PHOTO
  • File Photo
  • NEW RATES Despite community opposition, the SLO County Board of Supervisors approved new Los Osos sewer rates on April 21.

"Time and reality have a way of catching up with us," said 2nd District Supervisor Bruce Gibson, who represents Los Osos. "Cost has always been an issue for the Los Osos sewer. ... As we worked hard to get the costs down, we realized that a rate increase is necessary."

County officials say the higher rates are needed to cover operations costs and build up sufficient reserve funds. But many Los Osos ratepayers opposed the increases, and especially took issue with the county adopting them in the midst of the COVID-19 mandatory shelter-at-home order. Citizens argued they were denied a fair opportunity to mount a protest campaign against the rates under Proposition 218.

The Los Osos Community Services District (CSD) board of directors echoed their concerns in a formal letter to the county asking for a continuance of the April 21 hearing.

"We'd urge you to reconsider the timing of the public hearing ... and wait until [a] time that full participation by community members is possible," the CSD's letter read.

SLO County moved ahead with the hearing, and by April 21, nearly 1,000 ratepayers, or about 20 percent of the community, had submitted protest ballots. The votes fell short of the majority required to successfully defeat the rates.

Several upset residents called in to the meeting and left recorded voicemails for the supervisors, including George Contento, a Los Osos commercial property owner.

"I'm kind of dumbfounded," Contento said. "Most people think of commercial, and they think of big centers and big money. There are a lot of commercial buildings in Los Osos that are not very large at all, yet you're going to be saddling them with this huge sewer bill. ... They're really mom-and-pop businesses, mom-and-pop centers, where small business people hang out. You're just stomping on them with both feet here."

While all five supervisors agreed to move forward with the rate increases, Gibson and 5th District Supervisor Debbie Arnold butted heads on the timing of their implementation.

Gibson wanted to delay the imposition of the new rates until after SLO County lifted its COVID-19 emergency proclamation; that's how the board handled a water rate increase in the North County community of Shandon in late March. Arnold, though, wanted the rates to take effect sooner, after the shelter-at-home order is lifted.

Arnold argued that countywide, taxpayers shouldn't be on the hook for any costs related to the Los Osos sewer. She called comparing Shandon and Los Osos like comparing "apples and oranges."

"It could take years," Arnold said of lifting the emergency proclamation. "For us to saddle other communities with this, I can't do that."

Pointing to county administrators' warnings that COVID-19's budget impacts would be on par with the worst years of the 2008 recession, Arnold pressed her colleagues to look at the Los Osos rates differently.

When neither supervisor budged from their stances, the board voted 4-1, with Arnold dissenting, on Gibson's motion to delay the sewer rates until 30 days after the county's emergency proclamation is lifted. Δ

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