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Pending water rate hike opens spigot of heart-breaking stories in Lathrop
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LATHROP – Lathrop’s leaders are in an unenviable position. They are caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. On the one hand is the city’s dire need to come up with $1 million a year or $5 million in five years to continue delivering water and sewer service to its residents. The answer they came up with to bridge that financial gap is to propose a raise in monthly utility rates.

On the other hand, there are the city’s many elderly and low-income residents who are already facing daily spending dilemmas: Food or medicine? Water or medical insurance? Food or rent? Any further drain on their already gnawed-to-the-bone dollar would mean more significant hardship than they are facing now, said those who addressed the council Tuesday night to formally voice their protest against the proposed rate hikes.

But if the city cannot raise the $1 million a year to make sure residents will continue flushing their toilets and have clean potable water coming out of their faucets, the city may have to dip into its general fund which would further erode the community’s financial capacity to take care of such vital services as fire and police. The problem is, money coming into the general fund is derived from sources such as property taxes which contribute the lion’s share of this budget pie. But with the city hard-hit by the housing market crisis as evidenced by its record number of foreclosed homes aggravated by the trickle of commercial development happening in the last couple of years, Lathrop’s general fund is expected to suffer a financial drought. In fact, the city is already bracing for one after being put on notice by San Joaquin County officials that property taxes will be significantly lower this coming year than was projected last year.

The City Council came face to face with these harsh realities and heart-tugging stories Tuesday night during the lengthy and difficult discussion over the proposal to raise the monthly water and sewer bills. Some 30 speakers stood up to address their elected officials, begging them to spare them from another rate hike that will ensure their monthly bills to go up for the next five years.

Reading from her “letter of protest,” Arnita Montiel said, “I know that everyone in the city is hurting because of the economy we’re in.”

But, she said, her medical insurance premium has also gone up from $99 to $275 a month which would make the proposed utility rate hikes an additional financial burden for her and her husband, Jim, who is battling cancer.

“This has made a big dent on our income” and any additional expenses will further erode their financial capabilities, she added.

“We, seniors, are facing really hard decisions,” said Marguerite Luevano who has lived in Lathrop for 50 years.

“We are already cutting back on a lot of things,” said Luevano who came to the public hearing with husband Don, a veteran.

“My husband just got laid off and I am disabled. I can’t afford it,” Nellie Santos simply said about the proposed rate increases.

“I hope you hear our problems,” she told the council.

Wallace Pierce, who said he came to the council meeting to “voice my dismay to the proposed increases” reminded everyone that with the widespread housing foreclosures happening in Lathrop, a boost in the monthly utility bills will be an additional financial impact to “people who are barely hanging on.

“I’m currently unemployed myself,” he said.

Among the speakers was Cory Mateo, wife of Council member Christopher Mateo.

“I’m not really here for me,” she prefaced her short speech. “I’m speaking on behalf of people in the community especially the seniors.”

She said being a volunteer with the city’s Brown Bag and Commodities program, both geared primarily to seniors who are on fixed income, and delivering food to their homes, she has seen the poverty that many of them are living through.

“I don’t think they can afford (the rate increase,)” she said. Not only are they on fixed incomes, “they have disabilities too,” she added.

With some people on the brink of foreclosure or facing foreclosure and are “hanging on their fingernails, do you think this hike is justified?” asked another resident.

One suggestion offered by the council for residents who need financial hand-up in their monthly expenses is to sign up for the city’s CARE program offered to those who are either on fixed income, are low income or are unemployed. About 219 residents are currently taking advantage of this program, according to city records.

The current proposal would see a monthly increase in water and sewer bills from $2 to $5 a month in three to five years for water, and from $4 to $5 dollars at the same increments for the same time period, depending on whether the residents live on the east side or west side of town. The disparities are due to a number of factors including special tax districts.

The public hearing on the proposed rate increases will be continued at the next council meeting to give staff time to look for other ways and means to pare down the proposed increases.