Burlingame Hills residents block sewer fee hike

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What’s good for the goose isn’t always good for the gander, according to Burlingame Hills resident Alison Sampson.

After the San Mateo County Department of Public Works proposed to raise annual sewer bills from $1,150 to $1,350 in order to pay for capital improvements to aging sewer lines in the unincorporated neighborhood, more than 300 residents fought back through a petition presented at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting.

“It’s just gotten to be too much for people,” Sampson said. “They have been raising rates since 2000, which were relatively small increases at first. They have now already collected over $1 million in the last 10 years, but haven’t done diddly to fix the pipes.”

According to Proposition 218, the department must comply with the request from residents of Burlingame Hills as they received plenty more than the required 50 percent  of votes in support of the petition, said Public Works Director Jim Porter. Out of 426 Burlingame Hills property owners, 307 voted to block the increase.

Sampson and fellow resident Ray Moreno have been at the forefront of this effort since forming a subcommittee to the Burlingame Homeowners Association in 2007. In 2008, the committee proposed to set aside $200 per homeowner for a special line item on the city’s budget to ensure that funds were being used solely for sewer rather than being sucked into the general fund, Sampson said.

Last year, the sewer district accumulated $562,000 and had to use reserves to help fund $654,000 in total expenditures.

“Reserves are like your checkbook,” Porter said. “At some point, you can’t dip into the reserves — you have to have revenue to fund these expenditures.”

Following a recent lawsuit settlement with Baykeeper, an environmental group concerned with water pollution in the Bay Area, Public Works agreed to fund significant upgrades to the 75-year-old sewage infrastructure in Burlingame Hills, Porter said.

The sewer district is funded entirely through resident fees, but with Tuesday’s petition, the district will be forced to defer its capital improvement projects, which involve replacing several aging sewer lines. Taxpayer dollars also go toward operating costs for the system, including preventative maintenance, as well as the hydraulic analysis required by the Baykeeper settlement.

“We need to work on the sewer infrastructure, which is expensive, unfortunately, but now is the time to do it,” Porter said. “This Baykeeper lawsuit has put a timetable on when improvements need to be made, so the fact that we don’t have enough revenue to do the work we had identified is something we will need to discuss with Baykeeper.”

The sewer district has already applied for a state loan, but with its revenue stream now held flat, Porter said, it is likely that state funds will be reduced.

Stopping the increase

Burlingame Hills residents rose up to stop a proposed $200 sewer rate hike.

$1,150:
Current annual sewer rate
$1,350: Proposed annual sewer rate that was rejected
426: Residents of Burlingame Hills
307: Residents who opposed hike
212: Votes needed to kill hike
$200: Money set aside annually per homeowner starting in 2008
$562,000: Amount accumulated by sewer district in 2009
$654,000: Total expenditures for sewer district in 2009

shaughey@sfexaminer.com

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