Taxpayers win Fresno rate hike court ruling

Taxpayers win Fresno rate hike court ruling

FresnoA group of taxpayers battling the City of Fresno has won a critical legal victory in their fight to get a referendum of the city’s water rate increases on the November ballot.

On April 28, Superior Court Judge M. Bruce Smith reaffirmed his preliminary ruling granting the “Citizens of Lower Water Bills — Yes on Measure W” the right to move forward with their referendum on the city’s controversial water rate hikes. The ruling clears the final pre-election hurdle for the group of taxpayers, although it could still be appealed to the California Supreme Court.

Last year, the City of Fresno denied the taxpayers a title and summary for their petition, and then sued the taxpayers to prevent their initiative from being circulated. The move appeared to be a direct violation of the California Constitution. Section 3 of Article 13C states that “the initiative power shall not be prohibited or otherwise limited in matters of reducing or repealing any local tax, assessment, fee or charge.”

Pre-emptive strike: City sues taxpayers

The Superior Court ruled against the city.

“Measure W moves on as we complete our gathering of signatures,” said former Fresno County Supervisor Doug Vagim, the leader of the taxpayer group and a named party in the case. “It’s estimated the City’s lawsuit will cost the taxpayers of this community over a third of a million dollars, and to date they have lost at every court, Superior and Appellate. Their next step is the California Supreme Court.”

To qualify their referendum for the regularly scheduled November 2014 election, taxpayers would need to submit 4,846 valid signatures to the City Clerk by May 8.

Petition circulation time cut short

Opponents of the water rate increase say that the protracted legal battle was little more than a stalling tactic to make it more difficult for them to collect the necessary signatures.

“As a result we were provided a window of only 10 weeks from the normal time of 26 weeks to circulate our petition and make the Nov. 2014 election cycle,” Vagim said.

Even supporters of the water rate hike have become disgusted with the city’s hardball tactics. Shortly after the first ruling, the Fresno Bee editorial board, which backs the water rate increases, chastised Mayor Ashley Swearengin for her involvement in the political games.

“We support the water-rate increases; they are vital to the city’s future,” the paper wrote. “But with these stalling and blocking tactics, Swearengin sends a message that she doesn’t trust Fresno voters to do what’s best for the city.”

Tactics backfired — both parties oppose water rate hikes

Yet, the city’s hardball tactics appear to have backfired and united the public against the water rate hikes. In April, Vagim and his fellow taxpayers convinced the local Democratic and Republican central committees to support putting the issue on the ballot.

“Democrats and Republicans don’t often see things the same way,” the Fresno Bee’s City Beat columnist George Hostetter noted. “But both have embraced Vagim.”

Vagim downplays the achievement of bringing Republicans and Democrats together in opposition to the city’s lawsuit.

“Remember, the City of Fresno sued its own citizens in an attempt to stop them from exercising their franchise of the initiative guaranteed by the California Constitution,” he said.

City of Fresno: Rate hike needed to fund aging water system

As has previously reported, the battle began last August, when the city of Fresno approved a controversial plan pushed by Swearengin to raise the city’s water rates. The additional revenue was intended to go toward a $410 million upgrade to the city’s aging water system.

Under Swearengin’s plan, most water users, including city residents and some unincorporated parts of Fresno County, would see their average monthly bills rise to $48, double what they were last year. That didn’t sit well with a group of taxpayers, led by Vagim, who mobilized a grassroots effort to overturn the rate hikes.

But when the taxpayers tried to circulate a petition to overturn the mayor’s plan, the city took the extraordinary step of refusing to grant the petition a title and summary. Without a title and summary, the group couldn’t collect the necessary signatures to get a referendum on the ballot.

In January, the city complied with a court order and issued a ballot title and summary that allowed taxpayers to circulate their petition. The case is City of Fresno v. Doug Vagim.

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