'Torn Fabric'

During ex parte comments by commissioners at the June 11 Coastal Commission hearing in Marina del Rey — which resulted in a Coastal Development Permit unanimously granted to the Los Osos Wastewater Project — Commissioner Mary Shallenberger disclosed that the day before the hearing she had met with San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Gibson, County Counsels Jensen and McNulty, and County Public Works Director Ogren.

During ex parte comments by commissioners at the June 11 Coastal Commission hearing in Marina del Rey — which resulted in a Coastal Development Permit unanimously granted to the Los Osos Wastewater Project — Commissioner Mary Shallenberger disclosed that the day before the hearing she had met with San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Gibson, County Counsels Jensen and McNulty, and County Public Works Director Ogren.

She said in part:

“We ended on a discussion about costs where they said that they had brought the project costs as low as they possibly could, including some very low-interest loans. Supervisor Gibson said he worried that the civil fabric, as he put it, has been pulled apart in the community and that he is committed to healing this as they go forward, and talking even perhaps (about) getting some crews together to actually dig sewer lines into houses with people who couldn’t afford to do it themselves.”

Do you honestly believe Supervisor Gibson loses sleep over the torn “civil fabric” in Los Osos? If he was really worried about it he would have given Los Osos a less expensive project, like he promised, but, no, he couldn’t do that. It had to be the most expensive or bust. Vacuum collection didn’t vacuum the town of homeowners like gravity will, and while STEP is cheaper it doesn’t displace enough homeowners. Only MWH gravity could do the big cleansing job the County wanted done.

As with George Bush and Iraq, Gibson can’t heal what he broke in Los Osos. Someone else will have to do that. After all, it was Gibson who pulled apart the “civil fabric” in Los Osos, and he clearly doesn’t know how to fix it. Remember the disrespect he heaped on Retired Judge Martha Goldin, seawater intrusion analyst Keith Wimer, and Los Osos public commenters, in general, who tried and failed to make their points with him? The doctor with no bedside manner is a former geophysicist who once worked for big oil. The scientist willing to sacrifice so many to build a sewer is clinically disconnected from true human values and can’t be trusted. He has proven this again and again.

So what makes him even think or imagine he can heal this open wound when on April 7, 2009, he broke his Prop 218 promise to voters and unilaterally dropped STEP collection and with it any alternative to far more expensive gravity collection — 70% of the cost of the project – simply because his favored technology couldn’t stand up to a very basic apples-to-apples cost-competition with cheaper STEP, or any other much-cheaper alternative technology? So it had to go, and with it the last and only chance for affordability. STEP was never in the picture, except for a cameo death scene near the end, and Gibson knows that better than anyone because he co-wrote the script.

How can Gibson, the sewer dealer, heal the 4,500 selected homeowners in the low-lying “Prohibition Zone” – but not in the wealthy highlands of Cabrillo Estates – to pay $300 to $400 a month for a $200 million sewer to fix a discredited “nitrate level” issue that will take 30 or 40 years to show any difference, if ever? As far as addressing the seawater intrusion crisis in the endangered Los Osos water basin, Wimer called the County’s project “worthless.”

So what exactly is one to make of Gibson’s heart-rending plan of “getting some crews together” to help poor homeowners in Los Osos, volunteers to dig laterals for hook-ups to his outrageously unaffordable sewer project? Step up to the mike and cut to the chase, Supervisor: Who saves and how much?

Until he offers real details it’s appears he is merely talking his way around the perimeter of yet another ill-conceived, ill-timed government pork project that will wipe out thousands at a low point in the collapsed economy. Apparently, a pipedigger’s dream is all he has to sell to a desperate community at this point, because he has no answers to the lethal trap he’s sprung, a trap built with no way out. To offer such a weak, shallow suggestion is worse than saying nothing at all. Of course, Gibson and Ogren were feeding the company line to willing Coastal Commissioner Shallenberger, and she was passing it along to us, the audience, as ex parte communications. There was a purpose to it all.

So what are you going to do now, Supervisor Gibson, continue to play politics with the lives of thousands, just like you’ve always done, or put a big chunk of those federal stimulus dollars directly into the bank accounts of PZ homeowners to help them pay what will be the biggest sewer bill in the U.S.? Everything else is just talk, and Los Ososans now know firsthand exactly how much your promises are worth.

From his fruited perch in the rolling hills of rural Cayucos, miles from the epicenter of human devastation in Los Osos, far from the pickup trucks and U-hauls, the bully behind the big sewer practically no one can afford now wants to play healer.

You’ve sure got a lot of nerve, Supervisor Gibson, I’ll grant you that.

— Ed Ochs 

Tom Murphy Busted in Arizona

Apparently, Tom Murphy, self-described inventor of the quirky “Reclamator” home water-reuse device, has been busy inventing new professions for himself. At least one particular profession might force him to hire an attorney — a real one — to keep him out of mounting legal troubles. The sometimes volatile Murphy was arrested Tuesday at 4:30 p.m. at his residence in Lake Havasu City, Arizona, for impersonating a public servant, according to Lake Havasu City Police Department Sgt. Joe Harrold.

Authorities in Lake Havasu declined to elaborate on the circumstances surrounding Murphy’s arrest, but under Title 13 (Criminal Code), Chapter 24 § 13-2406, impersonating a public servant is a class 1 misdemeanor, which imposes a sentence of imprisonment for six months and a maximum fine of $2500.

Lake Havasu Police are still currently investigating the matter, but say they are not investigating him for anything else. It was not clear at press time whether Murphy had been detained or was released on his own recognizance.

At the same time, the State Bar of Arizona is currently investigating Murphy for impersonating a licensed attorney, according to Rick DeBruhl, the State Bar’s Director of Communications. DeBruhl stated that the State Bar would file a cease and desist order or a civil action against Murphy if he fails to comply with State Bar guidelines.

In a recent e-mail sent by Murphy to a Los Osos resident, he listed under his full name, Dee Thomas Murphy, some of his recently assumed professions, with Internet links to supporting legal codes:

Private Attorney General, 18 U.S.C. 1964(a), 33 U.S.C. 1365
Criminal Investigator and Federal Witness, 18 U.S.C. 1510, 1512-13

National Standards Enforcement Agency
Southwest Division  
1802 Combat Drive
Lake Havasu City, AZ 86403
775-848-8800

He closes his e-mail with this quote:  

“The Private Attorney General is a due prevision for the rights of innocent persons provided by the district court of the United States” —National Standards Enforcement Agency

The National Standards Enforcement Agency is believed to be yet another Murphy fiction. The address on Combat Drive is his home mailbox. The phone number is Murphy’s cell phone.

On March 25 Murphy sent an intimidating e-mail to Lake Havasu’s Assistant Attorney, Kelly Garry, claiming that he was a “Private Attorney General” and a federal witness. Stating that he is a State of Arizona Licensed Attorney, Murphy accused Mrs. Garry of committing a felony by violating the attorney’s oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. Almost immediately after Murphy sent the e-mail, the State Bar of Arizona was notified. Sources close to the investigation confirm that Murphy is not a licensed attorney in the state of Arizona.

Last year, Murphy returned to Lake Havasu from Los Osos and Morro Bay on California’s Central Coast after failing to launch the Reclamator, an upgraded, membrane-enhanced septic system, as the solution to Los Osos homeowners’ wastewater woes, while leaving behind a trail of intimidation, threats and failed lawsuits. Murphy’s still owes legal expenses of approximately $5,000 to the Court of San Luis Obispo County.

According to sources monitoring Murphy’s Lake Havasu activities, he has basically followed the same pattern, with the addition of taking on new legal-sounding titles and threatening even wider federal legal retribution against those who opposed permitting the Reclamator in Lake Havasu in an earlier attempt in that city during their sewer project. He has since filed nuisance suits that have been dismissed by the Lake Havasu courts.

— Ed Ochs & Aaron Ochs

Look for updates of this story on The Rock.

Ogren’s MWH Gravity Bias Costing Los Osos Tens of Millions

Why was the cheaper, environmentally-preferred STEP collection system suddenly dropped from the County’s design-build process for the Los Osos Wastewater Project last year? Why didn’t the only STEP design-build team in the mix appeal that decision? In a fascinating glimpse into Public Works’ dirty little secret war against STEP to promote MWH gravity collection, San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Frank Mecham, occasionally the lone dissenter on the Board of Supervisors when it comes to voting more money for County Public Works to spend on the Los Osos project, has served as middle man in recent behind-the-scenes correspondence from Orenco Systems’ Bill Cagle and County Public Works Director Paavo Ogren. Their comments from this still-smoldering debate reveal some of the back story on Ogren’s STEP vendetta, his vicious disregard for the truth, and the brutal price Los Osos “Prohibition Zone” homeowners and the people of Los Osos will have to pay for it.


UPDATE: Orenco’s Mike Saunders replies to the Coastal Commission.
On Thursday, June 10, Mike Saunders of Orenco challenged the California Coastal Commission staff’s last-minute addendum, which echoed the County’s preference for a conventional gravity system and its concerns regarding the STEP collection system. “While we have an obvious interest in this project we have a greater interest in protecting the integrity of our core business,” wrote Saunders in a detailed e-mail to the commissioners and staff on the eve of the Commission’s de novo hearing in Marina del Rey. “While we understand that this is not your direct concern, we do believe that correcting poor information is part of your responsibility in properly administering the California Coastal Act.”

Why was the cheaper, environmentally-preferred STEP collection system suddenly dropped from the County’s design-build process for the Los Osos Wastewater Project last year? Why didn’t the only STEP design-build team in the mix appeal that decision?

In a fascinating glimpse into Public Works’ dirty little secret war against STEP to promote MWH gravity collection, San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Frank Mecham, occasionally the lone dissenter on the Board of Supervisors when it comes to voting more money for County Public Works to spend on the Los Osos project, has served as middle man in recent behind-the-scenes correspondence from Orenco Systems’ Bill Cagle and County Public Works Director Paavo Ogren. Their comments from this still-smoldering debate reveal some of the back story on Ogren’s STEP vendetta, his vicious disregard for the truth, and the brutal price Los Osos “Prohibition Zone” homeowners and the people of Los Osos will have to pay for it.

In the first Los Osos update in over five months, Ogren spoke on several controversial topics during his far-ranging April 27 County Board of Supervisors LOWWP session – the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) loan/grant package, bond sales, the $7-plus million spent by the County thus far to develop the project, repayment of the prior $6.5 million SRF loan, the second Prop 218 vote, due diligence, and a looming sewer rates and charges hearing, among others.

But even by Ogren’s high standards of spinning facts beyond recognition, none of his myriad comments were more distorted and deceptive than those condemning the STEP collection system and STEP contractors WM Lyles and his team, which included Sutherlin, Oregon-based Orenco Systems Inc. and Dana Ripley, author, with his Ripley Pacific team, of the STEP-based Los Osos Plan Update.

Triggering Ogren’s twisted rhetoric was one crisp, clearly worded question from Chairman Mecham, a question first raised in public comment:

Mecham: “What would be the cost to restart the design-build process?”

Ogren: “Well, if we were to re-issue the RFP that we’ve already issued that would be a relatively nominal cost. My concern would be, how would the contractors who are currently involved in the design-build respond, what would be our reason for re-starting design-build?

“I’ll point out that the single firm that did propose on a STEP system never appealed the decisions. The actual interviews and everything we’ve always treated as relatively confidential, so we haven’t gone out there and explained why they weren’t shortlisted, but again the contractor never appealed it so that’s some evidence at least that – and I will say that the cost estimates that that particular contractor provided our (staff) don’t resemble anything of what some of the individuals in the public are throwing out there. In fact their cost estimates for a STEP system were slightly higher than our cost estimates for a STEP system.”

Naturally, Ogren’s comments did not pass the WM Lyles team unnoticed. One month later, on May 28, Cagle, Program Leader, National Accounts for Orenco Systems, wrote a five-page letter to Board Chairman Mecham calling Ogren’s April 27 assertions “incorrect” and improper. Point by point, line by line, Cagle explained to Mecham why STEP was eliminated from the design-build process, why WM Lyles did not appeal, how the design-build had been “adulterated,” and the consequences for both Los Osos and the County.

Wrote Cagle to Mecham in response to Ogren’s comments, in part:

“There is no mechanism in the Request for Qualification (RFQ) to eliminate STEP as a viable project alternative. The tight interrelation between eliminating STEP and the WM Lyles Design Build (DB) team is suspect, especially when the expressed reasons fall outside of the RFQ evaluation criteria. The evidence surrounding the short-listing process insinuates impropriety.

“Even if the Lyles team won the appeal, a DB team cannot function with an unwilling partner that misrepresented that STEP technology was both a viable collection alternative AND an acceptable alternative to SLO County. So far, the consequence of removing innovation from the DB process is ongoing civil unrest and DB administrative cost overruns in excess of $5 million. Both of which have the potential to escalate from this point forward. Design Build Institute of America (DBIA) warns of these consequences when a Design Build process is adulterated.”

Responding to Ogren’s comment that “the single firm that did propose on the STEP system never appealed on the decisions,” Cagle said: “During the DB interview … the owner (SLO County) sent a clear message that SLO County would not be a cooperative partner on a ‘STEP’ design build team…  STEP and therefore the Lyles team was eliminated for reasons that fell outside the RFQ evaluation criteria.”

Cagle also refers to Ogren’s controversial ally, MWH, Public Works’ top candidate on both project short lists – for collection and treatment facility.

“Montgomery Watson Harza was favored with their own outdated (2004) gravity sewer design, even with an apparent violation of California Public Contract Code 20133, that specifically states, “Any architect or engineer retained by the county to assist in the development of the project specific documents shall not be eligible to participate in the preparation of a bid with any design-build entity for that project.”  Stated in black and white on Carollo’s SLO County contract are the MWH line items that contain verbiage about determining Viable Project Alternatives. Not only is “Determining Project Specific Alternatives” specific, but it gives the appearance that MWH was involved in steering the project alternatives selection.”

Cagle also noted that “on 3/27/09 the day of the shortlist announcement, the first day of the appeal process, the chair of the appeal committee, Paavo Ogren [via John Waddell] sent out a press release stating that STEP (and thereby the only STEP DB team) was not welcome.” In addition to the timely STEP-killing press release, Cagle refutes the Waddell memo in his detailed May 27, 2009 letter to the Planning Commission headed “7 reasons why STEP was eliminated.”

Cagle explained that Lyles did not appeal the failure to shortlist because Lyles’ two teams’ Statements of Qualifications (SOQs) were both based on STEP collection, and the County made it very clear that STEP was not an acceptable collection alternative. Even though STEP was clearly identified as an acceptable alternative in the Request for Qualifications (RFQs) and in the Prop 218 Engineers Report, Public Works’ Powerpoint presentation to the Board of Supervisors made it perfectly clear that that was not the case. Lyles wouldn’t even attempt an appeal with that sort of bait-and-switch in play, and so Lyles made a decision to cut their losses. There was obviously no reason for Lyles to expend any further resources on an appeal given that STEP was in fact never really on the table.

“A STEP team cannot function when the main team player, SLO County, is unwilling. Design Build can only be successful when the primary parties are working in a trusting partnership,” wrote Cagle. “Mr. Ogren understands this as he went through the Design Build Institute of America Boot Camp training at Cal Poly, SLO.”

The County simply had to eliminate STEP from the design-build process to protect MWH: “Had a STEP design been allowed to advance,” Cagle wrote, “it was obvious that these favored costs would have sealed the fate of the gravity sewer system.”

Lyles was not, as Ogren put it – “the single firm that did propose on the STEP sys
tem” — Lyles was the only team that proposed a project using STEP technology.

“And there you have the crux of the problem,” wrote Cagle. “Notwithstanding the fact that the STEP alternative would likely beat any gravity sewer proposal on cost and that the WM Lyles team represented the most qualified team to deliver the most sustainable solution, the RFQ evaluation committee did not include the WM Lyles STEP alternative on the shortlist. The only logical explanation to this suggests impropriety and a pre-determined outcome of the RFQ process.”

Ogren responded to Cagle’s letter in a June 3, 2010 email to go-between Mecham. Well, sort of. Ogren largely ignores Cagle’s arguments, acknowledging him briefly in only one line: “Obviously I don’t agree with several of Mr. Cagle’s statements in his most recent correspondence, which is why it was important to have the STEP issue as a point of focus last year,” wrote Ogren. Instead, he reminds Mecham that the STEP debate is ancient history, that the STEP ship sailed on April 7, 2009, and won’t be coming back this way again. After touching on key project steppingstones and milestones achieved up to this point by the County, and with the key piece, the Coastal Development Permit, so close they can taste it, Ogren attempts to steamroll his critics as well as Mecham, declaring that momentum is clearly with the County.

“The project that your Board approved, and which is now the jurisdiction of the (Coastal) Commission, is an excellent project for Los Osos,” Ogren wrote Mecham, “and the time has come to move forward.”

Of course, Ogren and Gibson would like to move forward as fast as possible, faster than the Planning and Coastal Commissions have taken on Los Osos, faster to cover up their tracks, faster than anyone can challenge the details of their deeply flawed project.

By the same token, Ogren has consistently distorted the facts about STEP versus gravity and Lyles’ position. Public Works has repeatedly asserted over the last year that STEP collection is not viable or cost-effective simply because Lyles failed to appeal. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The truth is that it was clearly evident to Public Works that MWH’s gravity plan could not compete with Lyles’ STEP plan and therefore the Lyles team needed to be dropped before any real numbers were on the table for all to see.

— Ed Ochs

Gibson Under-Estimating Sewer Bills to Win Los Osos Votes

If it’s Tuesday and you happen to be visiting Los Osos from out of the area, perhaps thinking about moving there, and want to know more about the future of this nature-lover’s seaside paradise, you may want to sit in on a rare Los Osos Update or weekly public comment at a San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors meeting in charming downtown San Luis Obispo. There you can hear Los Osos residents ask question after question about the County’s proposed $165 million – now $180 million – Los Osos Wastewater Project. And, if you hang around long enough, you can catch Los Osos’ County representative to the board, Supervisor Bruce Gibson, administer frontier justice by turning his blowtorch on Los Osos speakers complaining about having to pay $250 a month to flush their toilets with the most expensive sewer project a disadvantaged community’s dwindling dollars can buy in a desperate economy. You’ll find what’s in store for Los Osos and more at weekly County Board of Supervisors meetings, but it comes with a stern warning: they aren’t for the thin-skinned, faint of heart or short of breath.

Supervisor Gibson, bidding for re-election in the June 8 Democratic primary against one other candidate and facing no Republican opposition, looked down his nose from his high chamber perch on supervisors row. “Some of our commenters today and in recent weeks have taken a bit of a free-form approach as they speculate about the costs of the wastewater project in Los Osos,” he preached to the gathering at the May 4 Board of Supervisors meeting. “My comments are aimed mostly at the public who might be listening…”

Then, one more time for the old folks at home in Los Osos living on their Social Security checks and quivering by the radio listening to Gibson’s reassuring little fireside chat, he told him how much they would have to pay each month for the County’s sewer project in Los Osos.

“Under a set of assumptions that our Public Works team has put together, the expected monthly cost of the sewer, the public part of that, is still around $200 a month (per “Prohibition Zone” homeowner),” said Gibson. “The on-lot costs of digging laterals and other things are variable, lot to lot, but based on basic funding assumptions were possibly another $50 a month. The best single-number estimate of the total cost of the sewer is somewhere between $200 and $250 a month per household.

“That includes assessments (of $25,000 per “Prohibition Zone” home) that have been made and the operating and maintenance revenues that would be established through a rates and charges hearing,” he said. “It’s all included in the same basic cost estimates.”

Then Gibson, the County’s cast-iron ramrod for the trumped-up sewer project, demonstrated why, under his watch as Chairman, the County became the biggest embarrassment ever in its checkered history, a citadel of one-way communication, cronyism and corruption, and why Gibson is the one of the most callous, calculating and wrong-headed supervisors the County has probably ever seen, considering the huge number of people impacted by his blood and guts politics.

With a nasty, humiliating and perfectly in-character firing back after public comment that afternoon, Gibson offered a final blast at his arch Los Osos critics, the most knowledgeable, sewer-wise residents of this sticker-shocked community, who have closely followed the County’s proposed project and are convinced that homeowner costs will eventually exceed $250 a month on their way to $400 a month – and that Gibson is purposefully under-estimating the already excessive costs in order to quell deepening community concern and better his chances at the polls on June 8.

“Again,” Gibson groaned tartly to the crowd and scared-mute fellow board members, “these issues have been explained a number of times before. I do realize it’s been a little while since we’ve had a formal (Los Osos) update [actually over five months] so we haven’t answered that question specifically recently. But I am almost 100% certain that that information (on monthly homeowner costs) is very clearly laid out in material that’s posted on the project’s web site, and if Mr. Wimer has trouble finding that material on that web site he’s more than happy to give my office a call because that’s again been made very clear very many times before.

“We’re hopeful that better financing can bring those costs lower,” Gibson added, “but we won’t know until we get there.”

With weak assurances like that from the man setting the sewer bill at $250 a month, older folks listening by the radio at home must have pressed repeatedly on their Life Alert necklaces. To hear from Gibson’s mouth that seniors will have to take $250 a month out of their average $1,000 a month Social Security checks to pay for the sewer is like Gibson telling his own mother she’ll have to make a choice between eating or moving. But Gibson doesn’t have to worry about that happening. He is a wealthy Cayucos land baron and fruit rancher and his family will never have to move, never starve from a lack of fresh fruit that dot his many acres like ribbons of colored candies.

Gibson’s remarks were delivered in response to that afternoon’s public comment, primarily from vigilant Los Osos Sustainability Group members Martha Goldin and Keith Wimer. Not only did they challenge Gibson and Public Works Director Paavo Ogren for what they said, but also for what they didn’t say and won’t say. Gibson and Ogren don’t say the $250 a month is not the end of it, or that sewer bills will ramp up every year, year after year, or that there will be more assessments to come. Nor do they mention that the rates and charges ordinance will be a blank check just like the Proposition 218 vote in 2007 is a blank check to add on more and more expenses without any more votes. They don’t mention rising costs from the uncapped project, from construction change orders and cost overruns – the way the construction giants like MWH massage the bills and play the profit game – as well as the cost of other expensive and essential fixes such as the cost of halting salt water intrusion, new water system infrastructures and improvements related to the sewer, eventual imported water, and constant, creeping inflation, the silent assassin that attacks both the price of construction materials and food in the market. Gibson doesn’t ever mention that the project without a price tag is going to push thousands out of town because, according to him, the sewer won’t displace anyone. It’s easy to see why he can never tell the truth.

Los Osos residents respond to any Board comments one week later because Gibson and the Board always get the last word at meetings.

Retired Judge Goldin’s comments were in response to Public Works Director Ogren’s Los Osos project update at the April 27 Board of Supervisors meeting, an update that Goldin called “often not quite accurate… incomplete or confusing.” Goldin questioned what the County will do if its Proposition 218 vote for undeveloped property owners’ $40 million share of the $165 million project funding does not pass or is not held at all.

“If (the Prop 218) doesn’t fly because they (undeveloped property owners) might not vote for it,” Goldin said, “then we have rates and charges. Rates and charges to complete a capital project? Under Prop 218 I think there’s a serious legal question. But putting aside the legal question, what are the ratepayers going to say about this?

“Do they know in addition to $200 to $250, or $300 a month, they might be zapped with another $50, $75 or some unknown amount in order to complete the capital project…? Of course they don’t know,” said Goldin. “And we did not have a true and correct answer (at the April 27 Los Osos update) to that question: What happens if there is a shortfall beyond the $127 million that is currently secured (to pay for the project)?”

Gibson responded that operating expenses were included in the $250, but he didn’t answer Goldin’s larger question, at least not in such a large room with so many people listening. How much more will they pay? It will soon be the answer to all of tomorrow’s questions: rates and charges.

Wimer spoke on the same subject. “As I understand it,” he said, “you decided to fund a 218 rates and charges assessment to cover some of the project costs that were originally supposed to be funded with a 218 on undeveloped properties. How much will the rates and charges 218 add to the $250 monthly homeowner costs currently estimated for the project?

“I believe people will be surprised to hear that cost of the project went up substantially above the $25,000 assessment and they will now be paying the additional amount in rates and charges. This cost increase does not bode well for the future,” he said. “The project co
ntinues to escalate. How much are property owner costs going to go up, and how will you prevent future cost overruns?”

After leaving without complete answers, which is a recent upgrade from the usual no answers, Wimer was back May 1 before Gibson and his four cardboard cohorts to rebut Gibson’s comments of May 4 regarding PZ homeowner sewer costs staying about $250 a month.

“SRF loan documents posted on the County’s web site shows average monthly homeowner costs are expected to remain about $250,” Wimer said with deadpan sarcasm, responding to Gibson pointing him to the County web site for information a week earlier, “despite the fact that total project costs went up about $11 million last year and current homeowners will pay about $40 million of project costs than originally planned. We will apparently pay these additional project costs through approval of a rates and charges 218, in part because the 218 on developed properties is apparently not scheduled in the near future.”

“Are rates and charges supposed to cover capital costs?” he questioned. “Why are existing property owners expected to pay for build-out conditions as shown on the 218 assessment? What would monthly costs be with a 0% SRF loan? We’ll pay $9 million a year with this (USDA) loan package in debt service alone. Maybe it’s not worth rushing the Coastal Commission process to get the USDA loan…

“A wastewater project, even for $25 a month, is not worth the money if the Los Osos water basin is not sustainable,” he warned. Wimer called for the County to “immediately implement a County-administered basin-wide management plan and ordinance with the expressed objective of reversing sea water intrusion and establishing a sustainable basin.

“The groundwater basin update recently released confirmed what the Los Osos Sustainability Group has been saying for a year, that seawater intrusion is accelerating and urgent action is needed… Ultimately the County is responsible … and must lead the effort.”

Gibson has always talked a big game in his bubble world, yet he doesn’t understand that winning the sewer wars doesn’t come with throwing red meat to a fan base that wants Los Osos residents Martha Goldin and Keith Wimer insulted and embarrassed, if not punished on the spot.

But if the Board was listening, you couldn’t tell. So far, every plea from Los Osos residents for a more cost-effective project has fallen on deaf ears. Perhaps the other board members are grateful that the sewer, with its long, bitter history, is not in their district. What political sense would it make for them to interfere in something 30 years dirty and none of their business? Quite the opposite. They’ve sought to reassure their nervous constituents that their tax dollars wouldn’t disappear down the black hole of the bottomless Los Osos sewer. One of the first political rules a new supervisor learns on the board is “NIMD” – “Not in My District” – and “Scratch My Back, I’ll Scratch Yours.” The supervisors could have been answering e-email on their laptops during Los Osos updates, surfing the web or playing solitaire. The rotten sewer is Gibson’s call, no one else’s.

During May 18 public comment, longtime Los Osos resident and developer Jeff Edwards complained that the County’s wastewater project does not address the saltwater intrusion that is menacing Los Osos’ drinkable water supply. “Ultimately,” he said, “Los Osos will face another $20 million to $40 million expense, most likely to import water, on top of the $165 million for the treatment facility. This is not acceptable.”

Edwards disagreed with Supervisor and Coastal Commissioner “Katcho” Achadjian’s recent Coastal comments that USDA funding was the best available funding for the Los Osos project. “(It appears that) the USDA funds are being pursued simply because it’s the most expedient way to repay the County the $7.45 million it’s outstanding,” he said.

“While it is a 40-year amortization period, the interest rate is approaching 4%, and on tens of millions of dollars that’s a lot of money,” Edwards said. “What happened to the State Revolving Loan Fund that we were able access at an interest rate that could be as low as 0% and have a term of 30 years? Why are we chasing the USDA money and using that as an excuse to expedite the project? It’s beyond me.

Edwards continued to lay siege to the County’s decision-making process. “Supervisor/Commissioner Achadjian cited the environment as a reason we needed to move along, in addition to the USDA money,” he said. “The current nitrate problem (the reason given for needing a sewer in the first place) pales by comparison to the seawater intrusion that is rapidly advancing. So are we going to solve a correctible nitrate problem, only to induce an irreversible seawater intrusion problem? It doesn’t make sense to me…”

Responded Achadjian, “I would not ignore the USDA loan at 4% because with this economy any preapproved loan is a blessing. We need to bear that in mind and keep that intact while we are looking for other monies that could be available for this project at a much lower rate.”

Gibson added that Coastal Commission staff scheduled its next meeting in June partly to deal with “timeliness issues” related to the USDA loan for Los Osos. “In addition to the USDA funding, our project team continues to explore all other potential sources of funding including the State Revolving Fund,” he said in his patented doublespeak with layers of disclaimers. “Each component in each different program and each different interest rate that might be available has a number of conditions and a maximum amount, and what we continue to do as we have all along is put together the most favorable financing package that we can to lower the monthly cost as best we can.”

Both Board members and public expressed confusion over the difference between the second Prop 218, on undeveloped properties, and its fate, and the emerging Prop 218 rates and charges ordinance, and how much of the undeveloped property owners’ $27 million share of project costs ultimately will be absorbed as rates and chargers on already assessed and overtaxed PZ homeowners of developed properties.

On April 27 Public Works Director Ogren said, “The project documentation shows that $27 million (of the $165 million estimated project cost) is relating to the undeveloped properties so it’s either going to be the second Prop 218 or connection fees that would relate to recouping the fair share that is allocable to undeveloped properties.

“…If the project ends up being higher in costs,” he said, “then I would anticipate that the additional is paid for through the monthly water bills, although the option of putting out another Prop 218 would exist, or maybe even a community-wide special tax to help spread some of the costs behind the Prohibition Zone and beyond.”

What if Los Osos ratepayers protested the County’s proposed rates and charges ordinance and forced it to a referendum, and what if that referendum fails to pass, like in Paso Robles? After trying five times over the past several years to raise rates, Paso Robles recently secured a rate plan to pay its share of the Nacimiento Water Project without having to dip into its thin reserves, although a lawsuit could still stall implementation. A $70,000 election measure last November rejected previous rates.

“The Prop 218 for the rates and charges is the protest hearing so they’re not actually voting yes or no. There would have to be a sufficient protest,” said Ogren. “In Paso (Robles) they’ve gotten through the protest hearing, but then the referendum provisions of Prop 218 kicked in where it took 10% of the registered voters to kick it to a ref
erendum, and so the rate increase that the city had adopted nullified it.”

“If we found ourselves in that situation for Los Osos,” said Ogren, “we would be doing the exact same thing that Paso Robles is doing, and that is to restructure and re-tailor it to hone in on what the community preferences are in the restructuring of that, but we’d have to keep going…

“It would be understandable that your board would want to see that you’re good on that, that there isn’t a protest hearing or a referendum before you do the due diligence resolution (prior to accepting the project). If you adopt the due diligence resolution first and then we get into that rates and charges hearing, then we might find ourselves in the position Paso is in reworking it.”

For Los Osos to follow in Paso Robles’ footsteps of resistance, the public would have 30 days from County or LOCSD approval of new rates to protest them. At least 10% of registered voters would be needed to sign a protest and force the County or LOCSD to either rescind the rates or call an election. Such a situation in Los Osos could wreak havoc with the County’s timetable.

Fearing that a second Proposition 218 tax on undeveloped properties would not pass a vote of property owners still unable to build on their empty lots because of severe water issues in Los Osos, the County is looking to skip directly to a Prop 218 rates and charges ordinance that would capture some, if not all, of those lost assessment dollars with connection fees from undeveloped property owners. Any additional shortfall would presumably be picked up by “Prohibition Zone” homeowners, which is why, with no final price on the project in sight, Los Osos’ sewer activists believe Gibson is purposefully under-estimating the already excessive costs in order to quell strong community concern and better his chances at the polls.

Gibson publicly insists that sewer bills for the Los Osos Wastewater Project will top out at $250 per month per homeowner in Los Osos’ “Prohibition Zone” (PZ), and bristles at any suggestion it will cost more, but with consistently flawed estimates throughout the County’s EIR and Community Survey, some in Los Osos question both Gibson’s math and motives, believing he is playing politics with the lives of thousands in Los Osos.

Los Osos resident Steve Paige told the board at the May 25 Board of Supervisors meeting: “The economic model used to garner the 218 vote for the Los Osos sewer is no longer functional under the current economic circumstances. Considering that 40% of the homes in Los Osos now have no equity to pay for sewer improvements, the sewer project as the County proposes, is economically dysfunctional. The economy is not your fault,” he said, “but you are responsible for ignoring the problem.

“The issue is not about the type of loan we get, but the burden of the cost on individual homeowners. We must make Los Osos water management sustainable for the existing social classes here including fixed income seniors and middle class blue-collar homeowners…”

Paige requested that the Board ask the Regional Water Quality Control Board to give Los Osos a five-year waiver “to prevent causing a real estate collapse in Los Osos and allow the real estate market time to reset itself. This would give the County time to reinstate the design-bid-build process, a plan using existing septic tanks and a STEP collection system at half the cost and environmental impact…

“The plan on the table forces Los Osos homeowners to cover the economic costs of the County’s historic estimates for growth that ignores new facts about saltwater intrusion, a failed, austere economy going forward, and social sustainability,” said Paige. “We need a waiver to buy us time, we need STEP/STEG back in the design-bid-build process, and we need our rights to onsite primary waste processing preserved and not taken from us without economic compensation.”

The only good news for Los Osos “Prohibition Zone” residents to come out of all this institutional dysfunction is incompetence sometimes has its own rewards: sewer bills won’t start coming until late next year.

Said Ogren at the April 27 update, “We will not be able to start collecting assessments on property tax rolls next fiscal year 2011. That was the earliest year we projected that might happen. But with the CDP (Coastal Development Permit) not happening until June, there’s an August 10 statutory deadline that we simply won’t be able to meet, so the earliest we actually start collecting assessments on property tax bills will be the fiscal year 2011-12 budget.”

If Gibson loses the election, nothing will change for the better in Los Osos. The only other candidate in the race is even more reactionary, more extreme than Gibson. Either way, that’s as close to a guarantee of four more years of unbridled Tammany Hall-style corruption as you can get. How do you deal with a corrupt process and four other supervisors who refuse to intercede in the name all of they were sworn to uphold – and a Public Works Director in bed with contractors?

Gibson had a chance to save his legacy and save thousands from having to flee Los Osos and the homes they hoped to die in after a lifetime of paying their taxes and planning for retirement, but he didn’t do it. He’ll never do it. The sewer is coming, he says, and it will cost homeowners $250 a month. Just listen to him. He says it only when pressured, tired of being asked why, angry at having to be the face and voice of the sewer and the community it will destroy. Nothing will ever change unless Gibson wins at the polls and fires Gibson.

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There, visitor, now you know. Having attended a San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors meeting to glean some insight into the County’s vision for Los Osos, and after listening to some of the comments of both Los Osos residents, board members and staff, you are now more informed about what’s in store for Los Osos. You have also discovered that there’s a war going on there, and that the war’s been going on for a long, long time, although you never heard about it on TV in LA or read about it in any newspaper. Maybe all this has only convinced you to move there – out of the “Prohibition Zone,” of course. Or maybe you didn’t wait for the show to end to get back in your car and drive away. After what you’ve seen and heard, you might want keep driving until you’re out of the San Luis Obispo County entirely and never come back except to pass through or over. And if you do come back, don’t forget to bring more money next time. And water. Plenty of water.

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