Water and sewer bills will more than double in Riverbank

City leaders grimly denounced their predecessors for not having courage to charge enough fees in a past housing boom, then voted unanimously to more than double water and sewer rates despite pleas from several upset customers in the audience.

“It’s tough when you have to take care of the sins of your fathers,” Mayor Richard O’Brien said. It was a veiled reference to inaction or insufficient action by previous councils; for instance, sewer and water rates have not been raised since 2008 and 2010, respectively, despite growth spurts since 1990 nearly tripling Riverbank’s population, now about 24,000.

In an emotional justification, Councilwoman Leanne Jones Cruz said people elect leaders to make hard decisions that might not be popular.

“I will be brave,” she said. “I will do it with a heavy heart, but with a knowledgeable heart.”

I want to retire. I might have to work a few more years because of stuff like this. But you elected city officials to sit up here and be really brave and make these tough decisions.

Leanne Jones Cruz, councilwoman

The city must boost prices to fix decades-old pipes and upgrade other equipment, officials say.

If the council stays the course in a Sept. 22 final vote that amounts to a formality, prices for both utilities will balloon a combined 127 percent in several steps through 2019 for average families. Broken down, monthly sewer bills will jump 146 percent, from $20.15 to $49.48, and water bills for a home using 15,000 gallons would go up 107 percent, from $19.75 to about $41.

“That’s astronomical,” resident Evelyn Halbert said during the recent protest hearing.

We are expected to pay for your Christmas dream list? I think not. The city has made no adjustments in their expenses, but you put it all on us.

Loretta Larsen, property owner

Property owner Loretta Larsen asked what happened to millions of dollars in developer fees collected during the growth boom. She called for people to join an effort for a referendum that would force a vote throughout Riverbank, instead of just by the City Council.

Charles Neal said if Riverbank had charged development fees at a level embraced by Escalon, Crossroads subdivisions would have yielded $14.9 million more for sewer projects and $23.4 million more for water. The rate hikes would fall “on the backs of those who can least afford it,” including seniors, he said.

“It’s not fair,” Eddie Cuellar agreed.

City Clerk Annabelle Aguilar tallied customers’ written protests: 180 against the higher water rate and 179 against the sewer hike – far fewer than the 3,606 protests needed to derail the increases.

“These are hard decisions,” Jones Cruz said. “If you think we sit up here and make them lightly, you’re gravely mistaken.”

I can’t say it any better than she did. We know what we have to do.

Jeanine Tucker, councilwoman

“I would rather be known as the City Council that raised rates than the City Council that runs the city down to the ground and has to declare bankruptcy,” she added.

Council members Cal Campbell and Jeanine Tucker said they feel the same. Councilwoman Darlene Barber-Martinez said the city would have little money to cover a disastrous utility failure if one were to occur.

Should the council affirm the decision Sept. 22, the new rates would go into effect in December.

Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390