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Hawthorne Draws Fire for Increasing Fees

August 17, 1989|BARBARA BAIRD | Times Staff Writer

The Hawthorne City Council is under fire for imposing increases in water and trash collection fees that critics contend should have been subject to a citywide vote.

Raymon Sulser, a candidate for City Council, charged Monday that a water rate increase approved by the council last September was, in fact, a tax.

Under Proposition 13 and a later measure, Proposition 62, cities are barred from enacting new taxes without approval by a two-thirds' majority of voters. However, cities can raise fees to cover the cost of providing services.

At Monday night's City Council meeting, Sulser said the water increase was an illegal tax rather than a fee increase based on cost of services. He presented figures that he said show the increase has, in some cases, doubled customers' bills.

Increase Passed On

City officials said they are entitled to pass cost increases on to customers.

The council is also under fire from one its own members. In an Aug. 7 letter, Councilwoman Ginny M. Lambert asked Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner for an opinion on whether the city violated Proposition 13 in July when it increased the city's refuse collection franchise fee by 10%.

Although the fee must be paid by the city's longtime franchisee, H & C Disposal Co., the firm will be allowed to pass on the increase to Hawthorne residential and business customers. Business customers will be especially hard-hit, Lambert said.

The council differed sharply over the franchise fee increase, with Mayor Betty J. Ainsworth and Councilmen Charles Bookhammer and Steven Andersen voting for the measure, and Lambert voting against it. Councilman David M. York was absent.

The increased fees will raise $550,000 to help offset a $2.5-million budget deficit in the 1989-90 budget, according to City Manager R. Kenneth Jue. The average household's monthly bill will increase to $10.45 from $9.40, placing Hawthorne "right in the ballpark" in comparison with refuse fees in neighboring cities, he said.

In her Aug. 7 letter to Reiner, Lambert asked: "Is this, in fact, a tax disguised as a fee in order to circumvent the provisions of Prop. 13, which require all new taxes to be placed on the ballot and approved by at least two-thirds of the voters?"

A spokeswoman for Reiner said that Lambert's letter has been turned over to Deputy Dist. Atty. James Hickey and that her allegations are "under review to determine if a criminal investigation is warranted." No decision has been made, the spokeswoman said.

Lambert also asked Reiner to evaluate the legality of Hawthorne's contract with H & C. The city has never subjected its refuse collection services to competitive bidding, in spite of a 1984-85 Grand Jury recommendation that it do so.

City officials say that the Grand Jury recommendation was only a suggestion and that the city is not bound to follow it.

H & C has held the city's refuse collection contract since 1957. Although the current contract was not to expire until 1991, the council voted 3 to 2 in March to extend the contract to 1996. The council majority said H & C has done a good job and deserved the extension. Ainsworth and Lambert voted against the extension.

In her letter to Reiner, Lambert asked: "Is this a monopoly in the eyes of the law, and is it legal? Does the city have a defensible position in this case if a citizen files suit?"

Lambert said that because of the lack of competitive bidding, "there have been many complaints and several threats of lawsuits" by Hawthorne residents.

No opinion has been issued on this question either, according to Reiner's office.

In another development relating to city fees, the council voted 3 to 0 to table the city manager's request to spend $88,000 for consulting advice on fee increases.

Jue said he needed the consultants' help to determine city costs of providing services, so that justifiable fee increases can be arrived at in time for a special City Council budget hearing at 7 p.m. Monday at City Hall.

Although the fee increases could be applied to reducing the potential $2.5-million deficit, Lambert said she could not justify the expenditure of such a large sum for consultants. Lambert, Ainsworth and York voted to table the request.

Jue has said that as many as 32 city jobs may be on the line if other ways of reducing the deficit can not be found.

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