Close to Home: The issues at heart of Graton election

  • 6/6/2012: B3:

    PC: Election clerk Martha Apel, 89, has been doing her civic duty on election day since 1944. This year she volunteered at Elsie Allen High School on Tuesday morning.

The Graton sewer district, an independent community services district that has raised its rates 90 percent since it began operations in 2004, is about to elect two board members in the district's first elections to the board of directors. All prior directors have been appointed.

At the same time, the district is embroiled in the complexity of a grand plan to pasteurize its wastewater with a $6 million forgivable loan from the state water board. With construction well underway, the main facility recently had to be "reoriented," requiring new wiring and plumbing plans, a costly error.

It's no surprise to ratepayers, a growing number of whom have been asking questions. A report this summer from the Sonoma County grand jury (the second grand jury investigation of the district) indicates those questions are well founded.

Getting a clear financial picture is near to impossible, although the bookkeeper was paid more than $126,000 in 2011. The total budget is somehow never quite comprehensible while complicated invoices continue to roll in monthly to a board ill-equipped to understand them.

Engineering has never gone out to bid. The general manager's invoices are months behind. New grants and loans are ever in the works, and rates have risen an average of 10 percent every year.

Initial ratepayer concern about a loan from the Rural Community Assistance Corp. led to a trail of mysteriously unfinished business with FEMA/CalEMA funds awarded the district to build a floodwall in 2007. Final reimbursement was delayed for years, while the district paid interest averaging $2,000 a month on the community assistance interim loan that had covered long-completed construction costs.

Last year, pursuing the hold-up in reimbursement by FEMA, ratepayers learned costs for the floodwall project had been 50 percent over budget.

When ratepayers discovered the district planned to build a pasteurization plant, funded by state revolving fund money through the water board, alarm bells rang. A visionary experimental treatment plant for a tiny district that will be responsible for maintaining it sounded risky. The state, eager for innovative solutions to diminishing potable water and better sewage treatment, approved the district application for funds early this year, and construction began.

Meanwhile, a salient selling point of the pasteurization system, that it's designed to operate on the methane of the sewage itself, is inapplicable. There aren't enough hook-ups; the district is too small. Thus, it became necessary to install a natural gas pipeline to the tune of a current bill from PG&E for $108,068.

We can only imagine, since the board has not revealed the cost, what ratepayers are paying for the natural gas pipeline easement across neighboring property. Sold to ratepayers as a green system, without considerable development in Graton or a merger with Forestville, the pasteurization system will be forever dependent on natural gas — obtained increasingly from fracking and scheduled to rise in cost 13 percent this winter alone.

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