St. Helena Residents are Paying for Inept Government Services, Not Water

This story was published in the St. Helena Star on April 24, 2024.

Residents of St. Helena have seen their water bills soar to more than twice the county’s average over the last 23 years with minimal improvement of services.

Prop 218 requires utility rate studies every five years as justification for rate increases. In St. Helena, these studies have shown consistently that the city is in desperate need of capital improvement projects (CIPs) for their water and wastewater facilities currently estimated at $50 million. Why then, is the City pursuing a mere $10 million bond? Is it an attempt to conceal the problem’s true extent?

During these rate studies, the same projects are cited repeatedly to support rate increases without progress. For instance, the intake tower at Bell Canyon Reservoir partially collapsed in 2011 and repairs were included in the justification of raising rates that same year. However, it was not repaired and was used as justification to raise rates again in 2016 and 2023.

If money collected from ratepayers has not been going to essential CIPs, where has it been going? Water and wastewater enterprise funds have been diverted to legal expenses, hiring contractors over permanent employees, and paying significant portions of salaries for city management staff.

In 2017, St. Helena rescinded the Hall Winery’s Will Serve Letter, an agreement that the city would provide them water, resulting in a lawsuit which cost the city $900,000 in damages and $350,000 in legal fees. The $350,000 was paid out of ratepayers’ pockets—the water enterprise fund.

Since late 2020, the city’s struggle to recruit permanent water and wastewater operators led to a $4.3 million expenditure on contract employees in the last three years. Though the city was unable to provide salary information, it is estimated that hiring permanent employees would have saved the city approximately $3 million, money that could have been spent on CIPs.

This high turnover also reduced institutional memory; nearly costing ratepayers $900,000. The city witnessed six City Manager changes and five Public Works Directors in 11 years. The recent Director, unaware of a water tank’s age, deemed it the likely cause of the city’s persistent brown water issues. The seven-year-old tank with a 60–80-year lifespan prompted a nearly million-dollar epoxy plan until community whistleblowers highlighted its recent construction, deeming the expense unnecessary.

The city has been using water and wastewater enterprise funds to pay for large portions of staff salaries. The City Manager, Assistant City Manager, and the two Assistants to the City Managers’ salaries are all paid with 40% or more of their salaries coming from the water and wastewater enterprise funds. While these staff members do work with the water and wastewater systems, it is highly unlikely they spend over 40% of their time working in these systems to justify these allocations due to the fact they are also managing a police force, fire department, and more.

St. Helena has a history of deferring important projects and leaving residents to foot the bill. For instance, they postponed removing York Creek Dam for 27 years, leading to a tenfold cost increase. Paying fines of about $25,550 annually to NOAA, and losing a federal grant due to procrastination, residents ended up covering nearly 90% of the eventual $10 million cost.

City water policies have also favored commercial water users over residential ones. In the 2020-21 drought, a city council ordinance limited residential water users to 65 gallons per day per resident, a 43% reduction. This same ordinance only cut commercial use by 10%. St. Helena has a captive market on water because in 2012 it placed a moratorium on future residents drilling new wells on their property but has not placed similar restrictions on commercial users, nor enforced monitoring of these extractions.

In spite of this moratorium, groundwater extraction from the City’s Stonebridge complex has been recognized by the County as constituting major environmental injury to the Napa River, which has attracted continuing litigation.

The City also continues to ignore participation in a well-proposed county-wide water district schema that could save costs and reduce environmental injury. Why is maintaining a money losing ineffectual water fiefdom such a high priority? 

Capital facilities need money, but what happened to the money that the taxpayers had already dedicated? A thorough examination of the City’s financial practices and infrastructure needs is imperative. The current approach of merely issuing bonds and maintaining the status quo is unsustainable and does a disservice to residents. It’s time for transparency, accountability, and meaningful action to address St. Helena’s water management challenges.