An oversight agency moved a step closer to complete dissolution of the insolvent Niland Sanitary District on March 22, but emotional pleas from town residents made it clear the matter is far from being resolved.
The entire town faces eviction by health officials if the sewer district goes bankrupt and closes without another agency stepping in to run it, officials agree.
The Imperial Local Agency Formation Commission voted unanimously to dissolve the district and form a new district operated by Imperial County government—provided district customers approve a controversial rate increase. It follows previous votes furthering the dissolution by LAFCO and the Imperial County Board of Supervisors.
Prior to the vote, the commissioners during a public hearing on the matter heard from several Niland residents who traveled more than 40 miles to attend. While agreeing the current district and its board of directors should be replaced, most voiced displeasure over a rate increase even though LAFCO and county officials continued to stress the county is not likely to assume control of Niland Sanitary without it.
“We’re trying to give you the opportunity to exist,” said Commissioner Jason Jackson, an El Centro City Council member. “Without a sanitary district you cannot live in Niland.”
LAFCO has state authority to oversee such special districts. Its voting members include two members of the county board, two council members of local cities and one member of the public.
Besides not wishing to pay higher rates, residents complained they want re-imbursement for years of alleged over-charging by the current district.
“What you’re saying is the people of Niland don’t count,” Alex Hernandez told the commission. “You’re going to pay back the state and not the people?”
Hernandez was referring to state fines levied against the district for violation of environmental rules at the Niland sewer plant. The Regional Water Quality Control Board would allow the county to pay the fines on multi-year schedule if the rate increase is approved and the county takes over the district, said John Gay, county public works director.
“It’s not something this board can answer,” LAFCO legal counsel Ryan Childers told Hernandez. “I would suggest you retain legal counsel (to seek redress). It is not something that is within the purview of this board.”
In response to Hernandez, Jackson said, “None of that can be helped here. All we can do is give you the opportunity to exist. If you vote against 218 you better find somewhere else to live. The state will shut you down.”
Jackson was referring to Proposition 218, the 1996 voter-approved measure that requires a majority vote to raise certain local taxes and other charges.
Hernandez then became visibly upset and resident Aristeo Ojeda approached the podium from which he was speaking and escorted him out of the meeting, which was held at the El Centro City Council chambers.
Asked after the meeting if he was satisfied with LAFCO’s explanation to the re-imbursement request, Ojeda said, “Satisfied? No. We came to find solutions. What solutions do we have? We have none.”
Gay spoke at length with the residents trying to reassure them the county take over and corresponding rate increase is in the town’s best interest.
“As residents you have an ability to have a say in the (new) district policy,” he said.
Agreeing with others present that the current Niland board must not be allowed to be involved in running the new district, Ojeda told Gay, “You are going to make a new district. We want new personnel.”
Gay replied, “We can accommodate that.”
Speaking to a reporter, Gay stated that while the Niland board would be dissolved, the county employs a private firm to handle day-to-day operations of sewer districts under its jurisdiction. He said he could not say whether the firm would replace the sewer plant staff.
Gay added that while he understands residents’ desire to get reimbursement for past overcharges, there simply is no funding for that because the district is insolvent and the county takeover has no provisions for such payments.
The next steps are a fourth public workshop in Niland hosted by the county, followed by scheduling of the 45-day period during which property owners in the district can vote on the rate increase. A “no” vote will require a written response to the county by the property owner. A nonresponse will be considered a vote in favor. No dates for the workshop or the vote have been set, Gay added.