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Language barrier, increased rates cause stir in Williams
A large crowd gathered outside Williams City Hall on Wednesday night, trying to understand what had just happened at the public hearing about raising water rates.
The City Council adopted a 7 percent annual increase over a three-year period. The plan is to partially cover costs of a new well filter, booster pump station and a million-gallon reservoir southeast of town on Theater Road and Seventh Street, which will increase capacity of storage by a factor of 10, City Manager Charles Bergson said.
The city has qualified for a $1 million loan from the USDA and the rate increase is a requirement of the loan, according to Chief Finance Officer Rex Greenbaum. The base rate will increase for most water users from $16.67 to $17. 84 per monthly and consumptive rates will increase from $1.46 to $1.57 per 100 cubic feet of water in December 2013 and will rise again in 2014 and 2015.
The city sent out Proposition 218 ballots in November. Based on the number of property owners, 675 protest letters were needed to stop the increase.
The city received 79, Deputy City Clerk Sue Vannucci said.
But it was that process, in part, about which many in the community were concerned, particularly among the Hispanic residents.
"They need to take into consideration that we don't speak English. Without a translator, we don't understand what happened," Olgal Ramirez said through translator Gricelda Orozzo.
Two men spoke at the public hearing in protest of the raised rates and a crowd of about 40 filled the council chambers and spilled out to the lobby.
"Rate increases could not have come at a worse time," said Justin Spires.
Art Sanchez expressed concern that he was paying the same high amount on his bill as a family of five people. He was referring to the increased base sewer rate, which just increased to more than $70, making the flat rate for water and sewer $90.94.
The increase to pay for the new treatment plant went into effect in December and is reflected in consumers' January bill.
"We have more water needs, more fire needs, and we need better water quality. It's been passed off and passed off and now we have to pay the piper," said Mayor Pat Ash, trying to explain the need for the increases.
After the hearing, some men stood on the steps of the City Hall giving impromptu speeches, while others gathered in small groups to explain what had happened in the hearing.
The mostly Spanish-speaking crowd on the sidewalk expressed concerns about the new spike in the flat rate sewer charge, criticism of the public process and concerns about increased bills in general.
"People are very upset. A lot of people didn't know what happened and they don't understand what was said. They did receive letters in English and Spanish, but many can't read," said Orozzo, a case manager for the county.
"Everyone that was here didn't want it passed. They assumed coming to the meeting would show protest. Some people didn't see letters. I called and texted my friends, saying that this is important and they could come to the meeting to vote. They should have had a whole city vote and another meeting with a translator," said Orozzo.
"What the community is complaining about is they are charging exasperated prices. We don't know how much more they are going to raise costs," said Miquel Orozzo through Gricelda Orozzo.
Some of the people were confused by the high flat rate of their January bill, including an older woman who said she has tried to conserve water to make the bill lower, but it doesn't go down.
Ash said the City Council had used a translator before for larger issues and had not expected the meeting to be so heavily attended. She said that two staff people are able to translate and they were in the room for the meeting.
"We had a translator available. The typical process is, if somebody wants a translator they need to request it 48 hours in advance. Nobody requested anything to be translated. We had the resources. There were a lot of people that were bilingual that were translating in the crowd," said Greenbaum.
A group of residents are planning a March 1 meeting to further discuss their frustrations. It will be held at 7 p.m. at the Flea Market.