The Bay News‘ Neil Farrell wrote about Save Morro Bay in their April 12 – 25, 2018 issue (pg. 5). In the article, I was accurately referred to as a veteran of the Los Osos sewer wars. Inspired by that comment, here are lessons I’ve learned from Los Osos as a former resident.
1. Don’t make it complicated.
In Los Osos, citizens suddenly became wastewater engineers without any formal training. Discussions ranging from minuscule, technical details to elaborate musings on wastewater technologies grew into extensive conversations in public discourse. The best responses we got from accredited public works employees and consultants were eye-rolls and groans. The worst response was deafening silence.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
We need to simplify our message, stand by basic but specific principles and discuss only what we’re able to understand. There’s no shame in not knowing and asking questions when we don’t have all the answers.
2. Getting the project done right takes time.
In 2005, Los Osos recalled three of their board directors based on the promise that their new board would construct a new wastewater facility outside of town. Less than a year later, the new board was unable to get the job done. State law had to be enacted to transfer wastewater management authority to SLO County. Under their organized and professional stewardship, SLO County Public Works led the project to completion. As of 2018, 96% of Los Osos residents are now connected to a fully operational treatment plant.
Unlike Morro Bay, SLO County Public Works had a dedicated project management team. Instead of being hired to fulfill key management roles, consultants were retained for limited scope of services (requests often contained expenditures “not to exceed” certain amounts for base scope of work and contingencies) that could not be provided in-house. Part of those services included a drafting of an Environmental Impact Report (EIR), which set the project roadmap in 2008 — just two years after SLO County acquired wastewater management authority. City of Morro Bay just released their draft EIR five years after stating their intention to build a new facility; nearly five years of debating on site location.
Unlike Morro Bay, Public Works set a budget for the project, proposed budget amendments and transparently provided the County Board of Supervisors with their accounting. In fact, every request for spending was documented on SLO County’s LOWWP website.
It’s true County Public Works made some mistakes along the way, but those mistakes didn’t lead to further delays and increased costs. The City of Morro Bay has justified moving forward with a haphazardly organized Water Reclamation Facility out of order because “time is of the essence,” yet SLO County managed to be thorough and transparent during a period when Los Osos had its own looming threat of fines by the Regional Water Quality Control Board.
There’s no excuse to be hasty or irresponsible with an infrastructure project of this magnitude.
3. Citizen input must be essential.
Immediately after SLO County assumed responsibility for the Los Osos sewer, SLO County Public Works moved forward with the formation of a citizen-led Technical Advisory Committee (TAC). Unlike Morro Bay’s Water Reclamation Facility Citizen Advisory Committee (WRFCAC), Los Osos residents had a direct say in developing project specifications and technical memorandums, enhanced further by public comment and County responses. The result was an extensive collaboration between project management and the community.
SLO County also did a mail-in community survey as part of their public outreach.
The City of Morro Bay has organized community goal workshops and study sessions, but the narrative is largely controlled by them and project opponents are not invited to answer questions alongside staff. According to the City Council, WRFCAC serves at their pleasure. The only votes they want are “yes” votes.
Morro Bay could improve community relations by giving citizens more autonomy in the decision-making process.
4. Awareness of the Proposition 218 rate hikes is key.
In 2007, SLO County asked residents to approve rates for the wastewater project under Proposition 218. In October that year, approximately 80% of residents approved the rates because only 20% of the population sent in protest letters. Ballots were delivered to homeowners, but details involving the vote were purposefully vague. As a member of the Los Osos Taxpayers Association (LOTA), I helped challenged the legality of SLO County’s Prop. 218 process and discussed the pros and cons for approving rates.
But Los Osos homeowners were largely unaware that the “vote” wasn’t the kind of vote you cast at the ballot box; that doing nothing was equivalent to voting “yes”; that votes were weighted according to property value as opposed to a one-vote-one-person standard; that the vote was for a $25,000 per home bonded assessment (if you’re unable to pay your sewer tax, the County had a lien on your property). There was no significant undertaking by residents to educate the community on Prop. 218.
Ultimately, Los Osos residents approved two Prop. 218 votes related to their sewer: one for assessments in 2007 and the other for service charges in 2010. Meanwhile, Morro Bay residents are set to vote on the Prop. 218 for the same project for a second time. Residents already approved $75 million for Water Reclamation Facility in 2015, but the upcoming Prop. 218 will be asking residents to approve rates for a facility that’s twice as expensive.
Morro Bay organizations including Citizens for Affordable Living have increased outreach efforts to educate others about the Prop. 218 vote.
5. “We delay, we pay.”
It’s conventional wisdom that ratepayers will pay more for projects that get delayed. It’s one of the only claims the City of Morro Bay got right in their recent mailer.
Throughout the Los Osos sewer wars, many of the project delays originated from citizen initiatives and legal challenges. Full disclosure: LOTA initiated legal challenges for a fairer Prop. 218 process, but not to delay the project. Various Los Osos nonprofits delayed the project by using the legal system, but at the increased cost for all ratepayers.
Unlike Los Osos, Morro Bay has only seen delays coming from their city. In 2013, the wastewater treatment plant was estimated to cost $12-20 million more to move inland. Now a Water Reclamation Facility, the project costs an estimated $150-167 million in 2018. Between 2013 and now, there were no successful recalls, citizen initiatives or lawsuits. Residents even supported the Prop. 218 rate increases. What happened?
They delayed. We didn’t.
Despite their flaws, SLO County Public Works led the project from design to completion without shortcuts while grappling a limited timetable set by participating regulatory agencies. Their process was certainly not easy and it was highly contentious, but they achieved a significant milestone with community consensus. The City of Morro Bay is unable to be as thorough, diligent and inclusive. We can learn a lot from Los Osos by not repeating their mistakes and incorporating policies they got right.