Santa Barbara grand jury says Laguna sewer fee hike justified

Apr 11, 2017

A Santa Barbara County grand jury determined a recent fee hike by the Laguna County Sanitation District was justified. The district provides sewer service to about 12,000 residential and business customers in Orcutt and unincorporated areas of Santa Maria.

The grand jury looked into the increase because service charges have increased by 87 percent since 2011. The independent jury came to the conclusion that all was above board after interviewing Santa Barbara County public works staff, reviewing paperwork and reports and visiting the sanitation district’s treatment plant. 

“The 2016-17 Santa Barbara County Grand Jury found that the Santa Barbara County Department of Public Works, Laguna County Sanitation District and Santa Barbara County Auditor-Controller carefully planned a comprehensive process to fund system upgrades and replacements with the least financial impact on its customers,” states the report’s conclusion. “The Jury found that the Laguna County Sanitation District’s management exercised comprehensive planning and forward-looking leadership on behalf of its customers.”

Six years ago, the county board of supervisors approved a plan to upgrade the nearly 60-year-old year facility, and a corresponding rate hike to pay for it. After several years of steep increases, this year rates are slated to increase by about $1.50 per month.

The utility district collects 2.4 million gallons per day of wastewater via a 128-mile long sewer system. Many of the homes in the area use water softeners, so the treated wastewater has a high salt content.

From 2001 to 2010, the LCSD spent over $500,000 on consultant reports analyzing the cost of different ‘effluent discharge mechanisms,’ present and future capacity of the district’s sewer system and how the district may upgrade the entire system. In 2011, the district asked county officials for approval and funding for a major upgrade, estimated to cost $34 million.

“Between 2011 and 2015, user fees were increased by approximately 11 percent per year in order to better position the district for future borrowing needs,” the report states. “By increasing reserves, it enabled the LCSD to qualify for lower interest rates on future bond issues.”

Phase 1 of the planned system renovation is slated to go before the county board of supervisors in the fall of 2017 for final approval.