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Lathrop Water war: Santos, Ornelas clash over helping users who fail to pay bills
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LATHROP – Folks who fail to pay their water bill should get a break from the city.

That’s the opinion of Councilman Omar Ornelas.

And how he wants to give them that break is by absorbing half of the reconnection  fee that the City of Lathrop charges municipal water and sewer customers that fail to pay their bills on time by dipping into the general fund reserve to offset the difference.

But the concept of siphoning money away from a fund shared by all taxpaying citizens to make the burden easier for those who don’t take care of their personal finances – in the eyes of Mayor Joseph “Chaka” Santos – didn’t exactly go over well among all who sit on the dais.

An immediate cut to the $60 reconnect fee would have far-reaching consequences. It would force a re-examination of the entire water fee structure and the debt service covenant that the city is responsible for on bonds as well as maintenance and operations. That is what prompted Ornelas to suggest using the general fund reserve to make up the difference after cutting the fee in half.

He considered the reconnection fee a “double whammy” for people that are obviously financially strapped, and didn’t believe that the concepts he was pitching were enough to sink the city financially.

When Santos called him out on his ideas – using his own unique way of describing financial responsibility –  Ornelas got defensive.

“I completely disagree with you. These people aren’t out there buying ice cream or cutting back on that so they can put gas in their tank. Gas is something that you can live without – water is a necessity,” Ornelas said. “If the amount of money we need to do this is going to make the city broke, we’re in trouble.”

Santos, however, wasn’t about to let up without pointing out what he considered glaring errors in Ornelas’ logic – piggybacking information laid out by Finance Director Terry Vigna regarding changes that would be necessary if a straight cut were to be approved.

Fiscal responsibility, Santos argued, was something that everybody needed to learn how to execute.

“People need to learn how to save money for their water bill. Some of us have it and some of us don’t – and that’s not all our fault,” he said. “You can’t run a program for free. Water is water and business is business.”

Ultimately no formal action was taken outside of agreeing to bring the matter back at the next meeting with the understanding that it be an action item and that city staff – namely City Attorney Salvador Navarrete – have the necessary paperwork drawn up to make formal action a possibility.

The full cost to taxpayers will likely be determined by the next meeting.