Hollister fine doubled, indefinite moratorium set

Angry state water board shows little sympathy for Hollister’s
sewage problems
After watching their tense defense end with a complete
moratorium on all construction and a doubled $1.2 million fine,
Hollister city officials have been working this week to spin the
regional water board’s most harsh decision in years into something
positive.
Angry state water board shows little sympathy for Hollister’s sewage problems

After watching their tense defense end with a complete moratorium on all construction and a doubled $1.2 million fine, Hollister city officials have been working this week to spin the regional water board’s most harsh decision in years into something positive.

A seemingly flippant sentence in a statement by Hollister Councilman Tony Bruscia to the board last Thursday in Salinas resulted in the board raising the fine for the 15 million gallon wastewater spill in May – and harsh words from board members frustrated by the city’s ongoing problems in complying with state sewage treatment orders.

“This is one of the most drastic actions a board can take with a municipality,” warned Roger Briggs, Executive Director of the Regional Water Quality Control Board.

The building ban affects all homes, including senior and low-income, and new industrial jobs and commercial development. It means the postponement of both a new freshman campus at San Benito High School and a second city fire station.

The board’s cease and desist order on sewage hookups will be in place until the city makes improvements that allow for more sewage capacity, or until the new sewage facility is finished in October 2005.

The long-awaited decisions came after a tedious seven-hour meeting that heard testimony from elected officials from the city and county, paid groundwater experts and a $200-an-hour attorney hired by Hollister City Attorney Elaine Cass to represent the city.

Hollister officials were facing the same board that accused the city of “poor planning” in April 2000, when the city was under a houses-only moratorium for exceeding capacity at the domestic treatment plant. It was then the board granted temporary use of the industrial ponds for municipal sewage, which led to the May 6, 2002 spill into the San Benito Riverbed, a decision some second-guessed last week.

“Here we are 2½ years later and we’re still in the same boat,” said frustrated Board Member John Hayashi.

Those speaking against state leniency toward Hollister, including county supervisors and a representative of the San Benito County Water District, constituted an “unprecedented alliance,” board members noted.

At one time that alliance seemed to include the city’s hired attorney, who drew attention to a statement he disliked from Bruscia by publicly disavowing it before reading it to the board.

“There are one or two lines in this statement that he’s making without the advice of this counsel,” said Alm. “I think you’ll be able to figure out which ones they are.”

He then read Bruscia’s note aloud, including the passage he felt would offend.

“If we send it (the fine money) off to the state, the people would be unfairly punished for something which they did not do…. Double the fine if you must, but let’s put the money to work accomplishing good! [exclamation point, the attorney read]. We’re facing difficulties solving our sewage problems. Let’s not exacerbate them.”

After some discussion, the board unanimously agreed to the $1.2 million fine.

The fine can be reduced back to the original $600,000 if certain sewage system repair deadlines are met.

“All the money stays in the community,” said Bruscia on Friday. “I’m pleased with the outcome of the meeting. It’s a lot of money hanging over our head, but I think that’s a good thing.”

Not all Hollister citizens who attended the meeting agreed.

“They asked for it and they got it,” said Supervisor Ruth Kesler. “It had to happen. You can see why in our sewer ponds. And they are asking for it again if they don’t meet the deadlines. They haven’t met them before, what makes you think they will now?”

The fine money will fund $600,000 in local water conservation efforts and groundwater studies deemed appropriate by the Regional Water Quality Control Board. The city faces a possible $600,000 more in penalties — in increments of $200,000 — if it doesn’t meet three upcoming plant improvement deadlines between now and 2005. The city already is a year behind in plans for its new sewage system.

“I hope it’s true that you all found religion,” board Chairman Gary Shallcross said after listening to hours of promises to do better.

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