Time and time again, we have seen that the simpler some things seem, the more complicated they actually are. For instance, Oxnard’s Measure M.
While the language of the initiative is only one seemingly benign sentence — Shall an ordinance be adopted repealing the City’s wastewater rates adopted in January 2016 and returning to the rates previously in effect? — the implications were huge. Though the rate increases that were enacted in March and were slated to go up incrementally over five years for a net increase of 87 percent seemed unreasonably high, sparking regular resident protests at City Council meetings, the new rates would keep the city’s wastewater fund solvent with keeping up its debt payments on infrastructure costs. That debt is currently at $111 million. The increased rates would also cover operation, maintenance and labor costs as well as have money to address future issues with the city’s aging wastewater treatment plant. The passage of Measure M, repealing the rates, would put the city’s credit rating at high risk of dropping, which would then set off a sequence of financial nightmares, including significant fiscal penalties for not being able to meet debt obligations while raising interest rates of future loans for large-scale infrastructure projects.
These problems, however, were not addressed in Measure M. Further, rate increases had not kept up with the wastewater budget needs since 2010, according to Public Works Director Dan Rydberg, with costs exceeding revenue. But the measure’s author Aaron Starr, had another simple slogan that voters understood: Vote Yes to Pay Less. On Nov. 8, 72 percent of Oxnard voters passed Measure M.
Leading up to Nov. 8, the city had challenged Measure M’s legality, but the court had delayed any decisions until after the election, in case the measure did not pass. On Tuesday, Nov. 29, any division that Measure M or the wastewater rate increases had caused on the City Council had dissipated, with all members present — Mayor Tim Flynn, Mayor Pro Tem Carmen Ramirez, Councilman Bryan MacDonald and Councilman Bert Perello (Councilwoman Dorina Padilla was absent) — voting in favor of seeking a stay of Measure M through the courts after going over the risks.
City Manager Greg Nyhoff said that the message was clear from the voters, that the current rate increases were not acceptable. He said that the rate increases had assumptions, looking 30 years down the road at wastewater needs that weren’t completely necessary to address now. The new plan would be to do a five-year study and make a five-year rate plan — the City Council approved the plan. The stay would leave the March rate increase of 35 percent in place until the study was completed and the city could comply with public notification laws — Nyhoff estimated that would take, at most, five months. He did say, however, that the aging wastewater facility will need to be improved, if not replaced at some point, and is not something that could forever be ignored. The stay request will go before the court in the next week.
At the City Council meeting on Nov. 29, Aaron Starr told the City Council, “I think your first mistake was to sue me back in March.” The real problem here is not that the city decided to sue Starr, but rather the seriously complicated operations of running a city and trying to get all the bills paid while trying to make everyone happy. It is certain that the City Council and city staff have learned from this frustrating experience, but now, Star, battling for his own seat on the Council, may finally get a taste of his own medicine, taking the blame when residents don’t have proper services to address their basic needs. And that is a simple lesson we can all learn — being on the flipside of the coin.
This has been updated to better reflect the most recent election results, showing Aaron Starr trailing opponent Oscar Madigral by 525 points for a seat on the City Council.