Heads up, St. Helena Water Customers!

There is a consent item on the St. Helena City Council’s Agenda for Tuesday’s meeting (October 13, 6pm) that you should be paying attention to if you are a resident of St. Helena.

As many of you know, Meadowood suffered some staggering losses during the Glass Fire, not only to its main building and restaurant, but to its water tanks, as well.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the City Council will be asked to ratify a number of professional service agreements and/ or construction contracts to include:

  • $50,000 to assess the preliminary damage and water quality assessments for the Meadowood Tanks and Bell Canyon
  • $92,000 to design permanent water infrastructure for the Meadowood Tanks
  • $100,000 for emergency fire clearing and debris removal at two of the Meadowood Tanks, the Bell Canyon Access Roads, and the water treatment plant
  • $29,987 for a rental agreement to procure 3 temporary tanks for the Meadowood area
  • $100,000 for emergency fire clearing and debris removal at the Meadowood Tanks
  • $75,000 for emergency tree removal for road access and debris clearance system- wide

Granted, this is an emergency situation and I’m sure we all mourn this loss to our greater community. But what we need to remember is that Meadowood and Madrone Knoll are not within the city limits. So, among other things, the City of St. Helena gets no benefit from the TOT, sales tax, or property taxes generated there!

So why isn’t Napa County dealing with the items related specifically to the Meadowood Tanks? After all, it is Napa County that derives the economic benefit from the taxes paid by Meadowood and the houses on Madrone Knoll, not the City of St. Helena. But, way back when, the City of St. Helena established a water agreement to deliver water to Meadowood.

In the original water agreement written in the 1960’s, Meadowood had an unlimited allocation of water from the City. That agreement was modified in the 1990’s to limit Meadowood’s allocation to 20.5 million gallons of water per year. At the same time, the City took over the ownership of the Meadowood water system. So, in exchange for a cap on how much water Meadowood could use, the City took on the expense of maintaining the Meadowood water tanks, and more.

In addition to that extraordinary expense, it also costs the City more to deliver the water, which gets there via a one-way spur from St. Helena’s main water system, to those tanks. There are also check valves in the Meadowood water line that prevent the water from recirculating back down to St. Helena’s main water system. So, the only customers who receive the benefit of that water (and this could be an important point) are the water customers at Meadowood and Madrone Knoll.

Also, because that water has to be separately pumped up to the Meadowood tanks at a higher elevation, there are additional energy expenses to get it there. Up until 2016, Meadowood was paying the city an annual $50,000 surcharge to cover that extra energy expense. But, accepting the advice of a consultant hired to work with an Ad Hoc Committee (which included then Mayor Galbraith and Vice-Mayor Peter White), and based on their interpretation of California’s Proposition 218, the Ad Hoc Committee made recommendations to the City Council (again presided over by then Mayor Galbraith and Vice-Mayor White) to abandon the annual $50,000 surcharge. And the City Council, agreed.

At that point, St Helena residents began subsidizing Meadowood and the homes on Madrone Knoll even more–again, without benefit of the TOT, sales, or property taxes collected there.

Among other things, California’s Proposition 218 addresses how municipal governments can collect user fees such as water billing service. There is a clause in the Proposition that reads:

“The amount of a fee or charge imposed upon any parcel or person as an incident of property ownership shall not exceed the proportional cost of the service attributable to the parcel”.

“What this means,” says Tom Belt, a St. Helena resident who has consulted with an attorney specializing in water law, “is that municipalities cannot charge customers for a service if a parcel/person doesn’t benefit from that service. In other words, municipalities cannot require customers who do not receive a service to share in the cost to provide the service to customers who receive the service.”

Consequently, St. Helena should not be proportionally charging those water customers within the city limits, for service that is only received, in this case, by approximately 100 Meadowood customers.

Replacing the three Meadowood water tanks has been on the city’s 5-year Capital Improvement list since 2016. At that time the projected replacement costs for the tanks was $500K. A few months ago, the city revised that cost to $900K. But now that the tanks were destroyed in the Glass Fire, our city council is being asked to approve additional funding to provide temporary water tanks for Meadowood and Madrone Knoll water customers.

According to the city council’s October 13th staff report, the city will be working on recovering those additional costs, related to fire damage, through funds from the State. But what if the City does not recover the costs? Who will get left holding the bag, so to speak?

Given that this item is on the Consent Calendar, it could get passed by the council next Tuesday without discussion. It seems that, at the very least, the resolution should state that if the city does not receive full reimbursement for theses expenses, Meadowood and Madrone Knoll customers should have to reimburse the City’s Water Enterprise Fund. The burden of delivering water to Meadowood has fallen on the other St. Helena water customers for too long.

As it is, the City may already be at risk of litigation under Proposition 218 for imposing the same water fees on those customers who do not benefit from the water delivered to the resort and the homeowners on Madrone Knoll, as they do on Meadowood. And, according to Belt, if the City Council approves the costs to replace the Meadowood water tanks out of the City’s Enterprise Account, the risk of litigation may be even greater.

“Who knows how the council will vote this Tuesday?” says Belt. “I’ve sent email messages to three of the council members asking them for their input on this issue, but so far, I have only heard back from one.”

The meeting is Tuesday. If you want your concerns heard, here are the options:

1. Send a Public Comment in by 4:00 PM on Tuesday to publiccomment@cityofsthelena.org Include in the subject line “COMMENT TO COUNCIL – AGENDA ITEM 8.4.” Any public comment submitted no later than 2 hours before the scheduled meeting will be included as an attachment to the agenda but will not be read out loud. All public comments that are received after 4:00 PM will be attached to the agenda the following day.

2. Provide your comment through the Zoom meeting from a computer, tablet, or smart phone. This option allows the public to virtually attend the meeting as a muted ‘attendee’ with no video or screen sharing capabilities. You will be able to see and hear those participating in the meeting, but they will not be able to hear you until the host unmutes you. (See The Agenda for additional information on this option.)

3. Call in to the ZOOM meeting from a cell phone or landline phone only. This option allows the member of the public with the opportunity to verbally participate in public comment. Again instructions can be found on The Agenda.

–Elaine de Man