Getting through the winter is a balancing act for Jack.
This year, as with many before, he will be holed-up in his home for up to 100 days on end. Living in the backwoods of Wilseyville with only his dog for company, the 57-year-old’s snowed-in provisions will be limited by lean disability checks and a lack of four-wheel drive.
Like many retirees in the sparsely populated northeastern segment of the county, Jack chose this lifestyle to avoid the bustle and overwhelming expenses of town. It’s peaceful, he says, but during the cold months it can become a matter of life and death.
“Every year is some person’s year,” Jack told the Enterprise via phone Dec. 9. Some older residents are forced by their families to relocate to lower elevations, and some stay and fall victim to the winter. “If I was grounded here with no water, day three, it would be over,” he added.
In all his years living in the area, Jack has avoided renting homes that are hooked up to public sewer; he simply can’t afford it. Paying his water bill every two months has been hard enough, in addition to gas and electric to keep his place livable. Jack estimates he has spent roughly $5,000 for water alone over the past six years.
“By the grace of God and a few good friends, I’ve been able to have water everywhere I’ve lived for my first 12 years in the Gold Country,” Jack said. But in addition to that, he’s been forced to cut corners that were “already round.”
Jack, who has requested to keep his real name anonymous, will sometimes skip a meal or even a day’s worth of meals to scrape by. He’s lived in houses so cold that the refrigerator was used to prevent liquids from freezing.
For Jack and others like him, the recent round of rate increases adopted by the Calaveras County Water District (CCWD) was just another “poke in the eye,” coinciding with price hikes for additional amenities like gas, groceries and rent.
In July, the district implemented a five-year rate plan that will increase the water base rate from $113.56 to $120.35 and the sewer base rate from $172.32 to $210.63 by year five. Customers are billed every other month regardless of usage and charged an additional consumption fee for every cubic foot of water used.
“The penalty for not being able to pay is not just the shut off. In this world, the penalty for not having enough money is more money,” Jack said. “Did it push people over the edge? Maybe somebody. It certainly did not help.”
The directors of the county’s largest water district had those people in mind when they set out to develop a customer assistance program (CAP) on the heels of this year’s rate increase.
On Dec. 5, the CCWD board voted unanimously to offer financial credit to a limited number of customers with incomes at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty guideline. The program will provide $20 toward 200 water customers’ bills and $30 toward 200 sewer customers’ bills. Customers who qualify for both water and sewer subsidization will receive $50 toward each bill.
“I’m very proud of what we as a board were able to complete,” said CCWD Division 2 Director Terry Strange in a phone interview Dec. 6. “When I can fulfill my campaign promises, that means the world to me because my word is my word. I worked hard to be sure that that this program was completed before I left.”
According to CCWD Manager of External Affairs, Conservation and Grants Joel Metzger, the Dec. 5 meeting was scheduled intentionally to allow Strange to vote on the adoption before his term ended and newly-elected Cindy Secada took his place on the board Dec. 12.
Strange, whose division includes Mountain Ranch, West Point and Wilseyville, has been a driving force behind the new program since he was elected four years ago.
“For me, the past four years have been a lot of enjoyment and a lot of learning,” Strange said. “I have a much better appreciation for some of these rural communities and the struggles of some of our customers to make ends meet. I thought this was a very important program to leave people with.”
Identifying funds for the program, however, has been a struggle. Since ratepayer revenues cannot be redistributed as financial aid under state law, staff recommended dipping into the district’s Special Projects Fund, which is supplied by property tax revenues.
“There’s a great deal of flexibility with that account,” Metzger said in a phone interview Dec. 6. “No specific item has been taken away as the Special Projects Fund is used for many different purposes.”
The $30,000 taken out of the fund will provide for the first six months of the program, and an additional $60,000 will be designated each coming fiscal year.
“Long-term funding is a challenge, and the way it’s set up, any board can modify that in a positive or negative way,” Strange said. “We have to see how future directors support it.”
Strange hopes future funding may be found in revenues from the district’s hydroelectricity plants and rented properties, and that industrial donations may “enhance the program even more.”
He added that the program would never have been possible without the support of staff and fellow board members, some of whom participated in a series of workshops to develop the plan and visited food pantries to gain insight from at-risk ratepayers.
Division 1 Director and board President Scott Ratterman said in a phone interview Dec. 11 that the program is a very small percentage of the district’s budget, and that CAP funding may be subject to an increase or decrease in future years depending on the level of participation. “I will ask that this comes back to us if there is a waiting list,” Ratterman said. “The number of needy people in our community is daunting.”
Ratterman voiced concerns that the people most in need of assistance may have difficulties accessing information about the program and submitting applications. He said he hopes that customers read the provided information on their bills and that turnout is high so that the program may expand.
“The whole process has taken us four years, but I think it’s great to finally be successful and get (the program) written in,” said Division 3 Director Bertha Underhill in a phone interview Dec. 7. “I’m absolutely thrilled that we can go ahead and do this. We certainly will be shaking the trees, digging up the rocks, or whatever we can do to make sure that this program is successful.”
The district will be partnering with the Resource Connection to help identify customers who may qualify for the program and assist them with paperwork. Applications will be accepted starting Jan. 2 and will be first-come, first-served. If approved, customers will need to reapply annually starting in 2020 but will not lose their place as long as proper documentation is submitted.
Although all parties agree that there are more customers who qualify for the program than its budget allows, Metzger stated that the purpose of the CAP is to help those most in need. He added that the overwhelming feedback from qualifying customers is that any dollar amount taken off their bill would provide some relief.
When asked what a $20 credit might mean to someone who is struggling, Jack replied, “Every penny helps. ... In the month of December, that money spent on a water bill might have been used to help them visit family, to keep a utility turned on that might have been shut off, or to help prevent someone from freezing to death.”
Jack continued, “In a small population with a high percentage of persons on fixed incomes, that is a backdrop where a service like this one shines like a star on a Christmas tree. … When a group or individual helps someone that needs help, it’s uplifting and it makes a difference.”
More information about this program will be posted in the weeks to come. Those with questions or concerns can contact CCWD Customer Service at firstname.lastname@example.org or 754-3543.