by Kimberly Rivers
As a result of various decisions in Ventura County Superior Court, the city of Oxnard must reimburse city utility customers and eliminate a fee. The city is opting to make the changes retroactive to January 2020, giving more of a refund to customers.
Under the court’s ruling, the city must refund fees collected as part of the Infrastructure Use Fee (IUF) and stop charging for the fee effective June 2021. The city will be refunding a total of $36.5 million to ratepayers.
“As I’ve stated before, the judge’s ruling on this matter was fair and reasonable; the city erred in its implementation of the IUF. We will certainly correct it,” said Alexander Nguyen, Oxnard city manager. He added, “The city was determined to make things right. At the end of day the city’s utility customers are receiving a significant reimbursement credit that goes beyond what the court ruling required.” He said city staff had to determine the credits to be paid back over 20 months to all utility customers in the city, which include businesses and individuals. The city is doing more than what the court demanded by refunding fees back to January 2020.
The two changes will appear on October bills in the following ways.
First, what the city is calling a “one-time utility billing credit.” All residential and commercial customers will be given a one-time rate reduction credit for the September billing cycle that will appear on their October bill. The credit will represent an amount equal to 20 months of that customer’s payments for the IUF from January 2020 to August 2021. This credit will total $7.1 million.
And second, an overall utility rate reduction. Due to the court ruling, the city cannot include the IUF in existing utility rates. This will mean that charges for city-managed utilities will fall by the percentage that was previously being charged as the IUF. Water fees will drop 3.4%, wastewater services will go down 2.7% and fees for environmental resources (solid waste) will drop 3.5%. These changes will be in effect for the September billing cycle and will appear on the October bill or statements customers will receive. The city calculates that this change will save ratepayers nearly $4 million annually.
The refunds being given, and the removal of the IUF from the existing rate structure, came about as a result of legal action led by Oxnard resident Aaron Starr filed in March 2017. He says the messaging from the city about going beyond what the court orders is “disingenuous,” saying the city has been illegally charging customers these same fees since 2014 but that a statute of limitations restricts the reach of the lawsuit and resulting court order.
Other actions brought by Starr were struck down by the court, including two ballot initiatives that sought to change how the city conducts its business. Measures M and N, while passed by voters, were deemed to be a misuse of the ballot initiative process and that existing laws like the Brown Act, which governs how the city must conduct business, cannot be altered by ballot initiatives, nor can ballot initiatives enact rules for how an already-enacted general tax be spent. Those findings invalidated Measures M and N put forward by Starr.
City staff and elected officials note the expense of responding to Starr’s lawsuits and repeatedly state that the lawsuits aren’t benefiting the city.
Starr announced a new lawsuit against the city filed on Aug. 27 related to using funds collected for Landscape Maintenance Districts inappropriately.