Upholding a promise made to ratepayers to develop a financial assistance program by the year’s end, the Calaveras County Water District facilitated a workshop on Sept. 27 to develop system that will help low-income customers pay their water and sewer bills. However, little progress was made due to the lack of ratepayers who were in attendance.

“I’m really disappointed that we didn’t get enough people with low incomes to come tonight,” said Calaveras County Resource Connection Food Bank manager Tina Mather during the meeting.

“There are people who should be here who couldn’t – maybe due to gas money, etc.,” said CCWD District 2 Director Terry Strange, who has spearheaded the project alongside District 3 Director Bertha Underhill.

Despite the low turnout, a committee of nine that included CCWD Division 2 Director candidate Cindy Secada, representatives from county services and a few ratepayers discussed a basic framework for how the program might work once funding is secured, including how and how often an applicant may apply and what criteria the applicant would need to meet. The committee seemed to agree that all individuals below at least 185 percent of the Federal Poverty Level should qualify.

The program will likely utilize and build upon other programs that are already available, such as Pacific Gas and Electric Company’s Relief for Energy Assistance through Community Help.

The district has yet to determine a projected number of ratepayers that may qualify for assistance, though delinquency records show an average of 93 water lock-offs each two-month billing period for 2017 and an average of 96 for 2018 as of August. That number does not include sewer customers who fail to pay their bill.

Regarding the program’s source of funding, CCWD Manager of Affairs, Conservations and Grants Joel Metzger prefaced the workshop with a statement that the purpose of the evening was to design a program that is ready to be implemented if and when funding is secured.

According to Metzger, it is unusual for utilities districts to provide financial assistance to customers, as Proposition 218 heavily restricts the way in which funds may be distributed. Since it is illegal for revenues from one ratepayer to subsidize another, an alternate source of funding must be identified. However, all CCWD revenues are “currently committed,” Metzger said.

“What I heard just now is that it isn’t going to happen,” said Valley Springs resident and ratepayer Martha Schmidt. “If there’s no funding at this point, why are we even here?”

“You have to have something in place that can be put into action,” replied Kathi Toepel, Director of Senior Services at Mother Lode Office of Catholic Charities.

Another argument put forward by ratepayer Gary Caldwell of Valley Springs was that funds for a financial assistance program, if secured, should instead be put toward operational costs and lowering rates across the board.

“No matter what the rates are, there are always going to be people who can’t pay them,” Metzger said in response.

In May, CCWD implemented a highly contested five-year rate plan that will continue to increase each year until 2023. Currently, customers are charged a minimum of $112.28 for water and $179.91 for sewer every two months.

“I’ve had grown men call me in tears,” Strange said regarding feedback he’s received from constituents who are struggling to pay their bills.

Strange, whose term ends in December and is not seeking re-election, has also been a proponent of a compensation study at CCWD to compare salaries with other districts. The study is currently in progress and is expected to be complete by end of year.

At the closing of the meeting, the committee determined that no further action should be taken without conducting additional outreach to low-income customers.

Metzger stated on Oct. 4 that CCWD has subsequently held a community meeting in Arnold to discuss the program, and that the district is collaborating with the Resource Connection to find opportunities to speak with low income customers throughout the county.

Ratepayers are encouraged to attend the CCWD meeting on Oct. 16 at 2 p.m., during which the customer assistance plan will be discussed, as well as the next workshop on Oct. 24. at 1 p.m. The board is expected to vote on the plan during its Nov. 14 meeting.

For more information, visit ccwd.org.

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Dakota graduated from Bret Harte in 2013 and went to Davidson College, NC where she earned a bachelor's degree in Arab studies. After spending time studying in the Middle East and Europe, she is happy to be home, writing about the community she loves.

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