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City Looks for Way Out of a Fine Mess

Santa Paula needs to renew its water treatment permit but owes the state millions.

October 02, 2003|Gregory W. Griggs | Times Staff Writer

When the city of Santa Paula began efforts to renew the discharge permit for its aging wastewater treatment plant, officials discovered they were in big trouble.

The city's 64-year-old plant had accumulated more than 1,000 violations of water discharge standards since 1997, and the municipality owed the state as much as $5 million in fines.

Today, Santa Paula officials will meet with the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board to learn whether the city's discharge permit will be renewed. Officials hope that instead of paying fines to the state, the city will be allowed to use the money to help build a new $63-million treatment plant.

"We want to do the right thing," said Santa Paula City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz. "Our concern is about the burden on our ratepayers -- to have to pay for a new $63-million plant and then have to pay fines on top of that."

Neither the current City Council, nor the city manager, nor the public works director was around when Santa Paula received its last discharge permit, in 1997. Three years later, a state law made it mandatory -- rather than discretionary -- for fines to be levied for discharge violations.

Santa Paula began piling up citations and now must settle its debt before receiving a new permit.

Since December, the water board has been negotiating with the city to renew its permit, while conceding that the treatment plant's antiquated equipment is incapable of cleaning wastewater sufficiently to comply with current regulations.

"We know, with the older plants, they can't meet those standards," said Blythe Ponek-Bacharowski, acting chief of the board's watershed regulatory section.

The board's staff is recommending that Santa Paula's permit be renewed under less-stringent standards than those imposed by its expired permit. It will also ask that the city be ordered to strive for environmental compliance and to file regular reports on its progress in developing a new plant or modernizing the existing one.

Regulators have yet to specify how much in fines may actually be levied, but state-mandated fines of at least $3,000 a day would total at least $3 million, according to Bobkiewicz.

Considering that the city has about $9 million in its general fund, Bobkiewicz said that such hefty fines would devastate this rural town of 30,000.

"We're already living pretty close to the margins with our budget," he said. "We would not lay off a police officer or firefighter in order to pay a sewer fine. I'm not going to endanger the safety of our community."

The cost of building a modern sewage plant in partnership with the city of Fillmore, which would cover up to $23 million of the price tag, would force Santa Paula to double its wastewater rates, officials said. In the past three years, homeowners have already seen monthly rates jump 71%.

Seeking to exert political pressure on the water quality board, Santa Paula initiated a letter-writing campaign that flooded regulators with more than 500 coupons and letters. Correspondents included Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-Simi Valley, and state Assemblyman Tony Strickland.

Strickland, writing to the chairman of the state Water Resources Control Board in Sacramento, asked that any fines be applied to the cost of designing and building the new plant.

City officials met Wednesday afternoon with regional water board representatives at Simi Valley City Hall. They are hoping they can reach a settlement today. "I understand the board has really gone out of its way to try help the city deal with this and still maintain the environmental integrity of the laws they have to maintain," Mayor John Procter said. "We've been very pleased that they've been willing to work with us."

To that end, the Santa Paula City Council scheduled a special 1:30 p.m. meeting today in Simi Valley -- while the regional water board is also meeting there -- to review the board's latest position.

Fillmore is also set to receive a renewal of its discharge permit today, and City Manager Roy Payne is optimistic about how his town's own 48-year-old treatment plant -- which has dozens of violations itself -- will fare.

"We don't think we're going to be subject to fines," Payne said. "We've worked diligently since we received early notices [of violations] and have invested quite a bit of time and money to bring the plant into compliance."

In the past two years, Fillmore has spent nearly $1 million improving its plant, Payne said, adding that tests in August showed that the facility met the board's purity standards.

Average residential wastewater rates in Fillmore, with 14,700 residents, were raised from $18 to $23 to cover those improvements. Payne said that that increase "is going to pale in comparison to what will ultimately be required" to pay for a new treatment plant.

The regional water board will meet in the Simi Valley City Council chambers at 2929 Tapo Canyon Road beginning at 9 a.m. Discussion of Santa Paula's discharge permit is expected to begin after 1:30 p.m., according to city officials.

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