[Below is a letter from Councilman Eduardo Gonzalez in response to the Gazette's October 18 front page article reporting his $95,000 delinquent water/sewer bill. The Gazette has inserted its fact checking and response into the letter in red text.]
Open letter to the citizens of Fillmore
October 17, 2012
On October 11, 2012, the Fillmore Gazette published a front page article about our family business having a water and sewer debt with the City of Fillmore. Even though the article has factual errors, such as the number of rooms [The Gazette reported Orange Blossom Villa has 66 units; correction, it can facilitate 66 persons], and the actual amount we owe to the city, which, incidentally, is way lower than what is published, the fact still stands that we have a debt [The Gazette reported the correct amount past due; see billing history posted Here. The exact amount, as of 09/27/12 was $95,019.47].
There are several reasons why we have accumulated this debt. While I am not going to go into detail about those reasons, I believe it is fair to say that the general economy in this country has been a factor, as well as the exorbitant water and sewer rates that the citizens of Fillmore are being forced to pay, thanks to Mr. Steve Conaway’s idea about building a $174 million sewer plant [The actual cost of the plant was $83 million (See Article from the Slo Coast Journal for outside verification). It was not Councilman Conaway’s “idea” to build a sewer plant; Federal and State mandates demanded it, with threat of daily fines. Why would Councilman Gonzalez claim $174 million and blame one man for a problem being experienced by many cities?]. Even though our business is residential for seniors, our rates are calculated as business rates, and our water and sewer bills, once the plant was built, were increased from approx. $4,500 per month to about $15,000 per month [The Gazette calculated eight billings for 118 B St. and 827 River St. The lowest billing was $7,456.03, the highest $14,011.78, the average billing was $9,913.96, not $15,000. Again, see billing history posted Here]. This is about a 200+ percent increase overnight.
Businesses have a legal opportunity to declare bankruptcy protection and reorganize their debt. Unfortunately, by doing so, the vendors and individuals’ owed money to would end up not getting payment for what is owed them, or only getting pennies on the dollar, giving the business an advantage in reorganizing debt. If we chose this route, we would be taking advantage of everyone we owe money to, which, in this case, would include the City of Fillmore. My wife and I made a conscious decision not to do that, but to face our debt and creditors, and establish payment plans in order to pay what we owe, even if it took longer than anticipated. Let me be clear, we have never asked for a reduction in what we owe, nor forgiveness of any principal, penalties and fees, not to any creditor and much less, to the City of Fillmore.
The article published about us also says that the City has not provided the complete information requested about this case. However, in May 2012, I personally requested that the City Manager and City Clerk fully provide all the information that was being requested, without any reservations. I have received confirmation that this was completed, and I also saw all the documents submitted to Mr. Farrell, showing a complete file per his request, which is another factual error published by the Gazette [On May 15, 2012 the Gazette requested water billings for Fillmore Convalescent Center – 118 B Street, and Orange Blossom Villa, 827 River Street. We received a billing history for Fillmore Convalescent Center, 118 B. Street in the amount of $70,129.71 owing as of 05/10/12. A second billing was attached for the same name and address for $341.43 owing as of 05/10/12. Further requests for Orange Blossom Villa water AND SEWER billing history were answered with an email from City Clerk Clay Westling on July 12, 2012 with, “Martin Ferrell [sic], The City of Fillmore has provided you with all of the records on this topic that exist. If you are aware of any inaccuracies or incompleteness regarding these records, please provide more specific information. In the meantime I am treating this topic as closed Clay Westling”. Since no document we received referenced Orange Blossom Villa or the 827 River Street address, the Gazette requested complete billings again. On October 5, 2012 we received the $95,000+ billing and a billing for Orange Blossom Villa in the amount of $688.22 as of 09/27/12, address 827-T River Street. Yet another formal request to Clerk Westling resulted in an email from Glenda Jay, city finance director. It read, “Mr. Martin Farrell, The water/sewer/source reduction billing for 118 B Street and 827T River Street include the following: the utility billing for the address 118 B Street includes water/sewer/source reduction fees for the Fillmore Convalescent Center and the Orange Blossom Facility. When maintenance staff turns off the meter for this service location the water is off at the Orange Blossom facility.” TRANSLATION: THE TWO BUSINESSES SHARE ONE METER, though only the Convalescent Center name and address show on the billing. The 827 T River Street is the irrigation meter for the Orange Blossom facility and does not include sewer charges, according to Jay’s email. The Gazette’s response after four months of repeated requests: “Having not been informed of this unique billing situation, therefore, on its face, the Account History report the clerk provided was, as I explained in detail, incomplete and incorrect, identifying only the “Fillmore Conv. Center” and omitting the Orange Blossom Villa. Had this unusual billing setup been explained earlier a great deal of unnecessary correspondence and frustration could have been avoided, although it would not have changed the conclusions. Responses to public records requests should be clear, complete, and precise, as the request itself is required to be. Mr. Gonzalez explained the situation to me in a telephone conversation yesterday. Thank you for confirming his explanation. Dtd 10/12/12.”]
Nevertheless, it is unfortunate that not just businesses are suffering in today’s economy. We all, the citizens of Fillmore, have to pay today for the mistakes of yesterday. It is true that the State of California forced us to build a new water and sewer plant; it is true that for every day that the city had a leak we were getting penalized [So now it wasn't Councilman Conaway’s decision to build a sewer plant(?) as you stated in the second paragraph of this letter?], but, it is also true that we didn’t have to build a plant of this size [the plant was built to accommodate a future population of 20,000]. We were sold a plant that we just couldn’t afford and are now paying for the consequences of this decision, through the frequent rate increases to families and businesses water and sewer bills, rate increases that were built in the original agreement in 2006-2007. Not able to afford it any longer, businesses are leaving town and we are losing jobs [?].
I am not proud of the fact that our family business owes money to the City. If that is enough reason for me not to serve this City as a councilmember, then let it be, but we refuse to be a “pawn” of the political tactics that intend to harm our reputation and our true interest in fully paying this debt, and we will do so [The Gazette believes that an appointed councilman who owes 20% of the city’s past due water/sewer debts is newsworthy. As former city manager Yvonne Quiring stated at the 03/27/12 council meeting, those that pay their utility bills must make up for those who do not pay their bills].