DJ Becker/The Madera Tribune
An overflow crowd, in the city hall lobby, watches Wednesday night’s meeting on television.
Water prices and some salaries focus of complaints
An overflow City Hall crowd let the Madera City Council know in no uncertain terms Wednesday night that they wanted change, and they wanted it now.
An item on the agenda to publicly discuss water rates had only been added to the council meeting at the insistence of developer Mike Pistoresi, after he discovered Madera is charging significantly more for the same amount of water used than the surrounding cities of Clovis, Fresno, and Chowchilla.
Pistoresi outlined his concerns by comparing his own water bill to similar bills of those cities.
“There are some realities here tonight you need to consider. My own home water bill for this particular month this year was $336. If I’d lived in Reedly my $336 bill (for the same month and same amount of water use) would have only been $134. If I’d lived in Selma, $242; in Fresno, $187; and in Chowchilla, $137. So maybe that’s the place to go, (for affordable water),” he said with a laugh. “Riverstone was $219. Or maybe Clovis, where it’s only $148. This is the reality of it.” Pistoresi said.
“I get the issue of (operating) expenses. I’m in business so I know that. But I was given a document by a former city water department employee that lists all the employees that are charged to the water and sewer departments. He was kind enough to highlight the employees that he felt had nothing to do with the water or sewer department. It’s a substantial number. I could be wrong — but in my estimation, I think this is called ‘cooking the books’,” he said.
Water rates questioned
There were also issues with a city charging tiered water rates for usage, Pistoresi said, adding that the billing practice was extremely complex and was recently found to be illegal in California after a lawsuit was brought by residents of San Juan Capistrano and other state cities like Lincoln, resulting in large refunds to residents. “Madera hasn’t been sued yet, but that’s always a possibility.” he said.
Doubling of city water revenues
Pistoresi also claimed the city’s own numbers from the finance department told the story of the doubling of amounts the city billed residents for water and sewer services just since 2015.
“This is hard to refute. In 2015 the city took in (approximately) $5 million, 2016 $7 million, in 2017 $8.9 million, and (projections) for 2018 are for the city (to collect) $10.6 million. This is double what you took in, in 2015. Looking at this strictly from an expense to our community... you are pulling an extra additional $5.3 million out of the economy of this community. And a lot of these people can’t afford to pay that. I’m fortunate, I can pay my water bill, but the people on fixed incomes can’t pay this bill. This is a reality of what’s going on in this community. You are hurting this community ...” Pistoresi said.
Other residents spoke and described having to watch their carefully planted and tended landscaping, trees and shrubs all die off because they could no longer afford to water them at the increasing city rates.
Residents demand review
Pistoresi also called for an investigation into how the water and sewer (also known as enterprise) funds are used, to determine whether money was “borrowed” from those funds for other city uses in the general fund, a common practice, but then never replaced.
“The issue of an investigation into city finances and other city policies and practices was also raised by Pistoresi and other residents at the meeting.
“Nothing against you, Chief Frazier, I have great respect for you ... but I don’t think you are equipped with the accounting background that you can really delve into some of these things. I’d like to see the council agree to bring in an outside, qualified person with huge depth in all facets of city finances, such as a Ron Manfredi or Wayne Padilla.
“(Either of) these gentlemen are highly esteemed and well respected in their fields and could conduct a complete investigation into Madera’s finances. The have the experience and knowledge, necessary to cut personnel, reduce (executive) salaries, labor contracts and negotiate with bargaining units.
“We need to get Madera’s budget back on track, without trying to do it on the backs of the residents. Please do the right thing for Madera. You can see the way the community looks, people moving out ... because they have had it with what’s going on in Madera,” Pistoresi said to a round of applause.
Mayor Medellin said he appreciated Pistoresi’s comments and the purpose of the meeting was “about a community coming together and asking questions, and getting answers. If we can come together to see what we can accomplish ... the last thing we want to do is put this on the backs of the ratepayer. But we don’t want to do a straight across-the-board and find out we have another drought ahead of us. Or worse yet have what happened over on Schnoor happen (large sinkhole due to a leak in a sewer line). That money has to come from somewhere. That price tag was 1.2 million dollars.” Medellin said.
Transparency and interim administrator questioned
Longtime resident and business owner Velvet Rhoads blasted the council for not including residents in decisions such as selecting the interim city administrator, and said, “Mr. Mayor if you truly welcome questions let’s be transparent, like Transparent California,” Rhoads said.
“It took a lot us going on that website to find out that our department heads were making a quarter of a million dollars or more (a year). And for a town of 60,000 and one of the poorest communities in the Central Valley, let’s be transparent and bring in an independent auditor? Would you welcome that? Rhoads asked, as the room erupted into applause. “If there is nothing to hide, nothing will be found. Especially having a city in such dire straights, with the forecast being the city will be 8 million dollars in debt? There is (reportedly) a huge bond debt due on the John Wells Youth Center, three years after the retirement of David Tooley. Where does it end? Ten million, 11 million? We are going to be like (the scandal ridden) Bell, California. Let’s open the books and let’s get down to business,” Rhoads said.
Rhoads also took exception to Mayor Medellin's response that the public had been included.
“The three (recent) City Council meetings I have attended everything has been done in closed session. I have heard from (many) people who are trying to get to the bottom of this. (While) I have the utmost respect for Steve Frazier but this is just a crazy amount of money, approximately $21,000 a month, to pay (an inexperienced interim city manager.) So what made you appoint him the city administrator? I’m also not comfortable with (the fact) that he was so close to Dave Tooley. I would like to see somebody more independent from Dave Tooley.” Rhoads said, as the crowd applauded.
Medellin said he had complete confidence in former Madera police chief Steve Frazier as interim city administrator, and that “he has had already improved customer service and the way the city does business, and has offered his input on how things could be turned around. (Frazier) also has a vision for the downtown, and I totally agree with him. And again, let’s keep in mind this is an interim position ...” Medellin, said in part.
The need for change
“I personally have no problem with change at all.” Medellin said. “Decreasing rates, looking at the tiered (water billing system). The council came in tonight understanding that we certainly have to look at. Taking testimony and looking at rates, that’s the position we are in now. We do need to listen and collectively move Madera forward.”
“I personally think this is a perfect opportunity as we enter the new year. We have an interim city manager. It’s a perfect time for council to look inward and (potentially) hire a consultant, a fresh set of eyes, to help us start on the right foundation. We can look at rates and another issue that has obviously been discussed is salaries. A restructuring of salaries ... We can definitely talk about that ... in open session ... and a new way we do business at the City of Madera,” Medellin said.
Council member Cece Foley Gallegos said her preference was to not have another salary study done by the same consultants that did the previous studies that were now in question.
“We should be looking for somebody to be an advisor to the council and to look into why this has happened and why we are where we are at. To dig in and find answers, and (find) solutions ... Somebody independent who can look into executive salary compensation ... and also the water and sewer situation, enterprise funds, impact fees, all of that. Fresh eyes, to do what they need to do.”
Foley Gallegos suggested reaching out to Ron Manfredi immediately to request his terms and availability for his consulting services, a suggestion which was debated at length by Council Member Will Oliver.
Claims of obstruction
Business owner and long time community leader Kay Rhoads — Velvet Rhoads’ mother — stepped up during the council’s discussion and asked, “You are skirting the issue. Did you not hear us tonight? We want an independent consultant to come and look at all of this. You are not listening to us. It is the wages that are so atrocious,” Kay Rhoads said.
“This is not going to stop here (if you don’t address wages.) You have drug this out (very late tonight) so we’d all get up and go home. Listen to us. Listen to Cece. (She’s) the only one that gets this tonight. Get off the stick and do something. You are not listening to your citizens (sitting here.) Everybody is (upset) at the wages. Do you not get that? Why are muddling the issue? We are fed up. Do your job and correct it.”
After significant back and forth approaching 10 p.m., the council over the dismay and objections of some remaining residents, ultimately directed staff to go out with a broader RFP — or request for proposal — for any individuals interested to consult with the city on the general financial situation.