During its June 19 meeting, among a myriad of actions, the Los Banos City Council approved new rates for water, wastewater and solid waste services, authorized a pay increase for Los Banos Police sergeants, and accepted the city ‘s Annual Comprehensive Financial Report.

The council also entered into agreements with several engineering and construction firms related to storm drainage, infrastructure and a new fire station.

City Finance Director Vanessa Portillo presented the need for the proposed rate increases for water, wastewater, and solid waste services and highlighted the significant infrastructure investments required to maintain and improve the city’s aging systems.

She emphasized the city’s commitment to keeping rates as low as possible while ensuring the quality and reliability of essential services. Comparative data were shared showing that even with the proposed increases, the city’s rates would remain among the lowest in the county.

The public hearing following the presentation revealed concerns from residents regarding the proposed rate increases and fees. John Lupini, representing the Four Seasons gated community, raised questions about water rates and an ongoing issue with the city using the gated community’s sewer lift station without reimbursement.

Refugio Llamas questioned whether the proposed increases adhere to the legislation requiring fees to match the cost of services provided, highlighting potential misuse of funds for general services like street sweeping. Two other speakers sought clarification on the rationale behind using the San Francisco Consumer Price Index (CPI) for rate adjustments as it is not an area that is representative of their community.

Portillo responded to these questions, explaining the choice of the San Francisco CPI is because it is the closest to our region. She said the rate cap is 3.5 percent and adjustments would be communicated to residents 30 days before implementation. She added that street sweeping is part of the solid waste management budget.

Labor relations were also a focus, with the council approving a new tentative agreement and memorandum of understanding between the City of Los Banos and the Los Banos Police Sergeants Association for the upcoming fiscal years. This agreement includes adjustments to employee classifications and salary schedules for police personnel.

The council also amended the city’s policy and procedures manual regarding personnel benefits, specifically addressing changes in health, vision, dental, and life insurance coverage allowances for unrepresented/miscellaneous employees. These updates ensure that city employees receive competitive and comprehensive benefits packages.

The council also approved the Annual Comprehensive Financial Report, highlighting a $2.6 million increase in general fund reserves despite initial budget variances. The council then approved a $82,570 one-year auditing services extension with Price, Paige and Company for an audit of fiscal year 2023-2024, ensuring audit continuity amid ongoing financial system updates.

The council endorsed five-year professional services agreements with eight engineering firms, allocating up to $500,000 annually per firm to support city infrastructure projects

The city council also authorized a $44,600 expenditure with Carollo Engineers, Inc. to update the city’s Storm Drain System Master Plan to meet stricter groundwater regulations and to explore stormwater as a new resource

And the council also authorized the utilization of the design/build delivery method for the new Fire Station No. 4 project, along with approving an addendum to the professional services agreement with Vanir Construction Management, Inc. This move is aimed at streamlining construction processes and ensuring effective project management of the new fire station.

Stacey Souza Elms, the city’s Community and Economic Development Director, advised the council about a tentative parcel map proposal for 27.1 acres located at the southwest corner of Ward Road and Pacheco Boulevard. This proposal aims to subdivide the area into five parcels with varying zoning, Highway Commercial at the frontage and Medium Density at the rear.

Reports by Los Banos’ city manager, councilmembers and mayor included commendations and concerns.

During his report, City Manager Josh Pinheiro commended the finance staff members for their dedicated efforts in transitioning to a new ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) system. This involved extensive work transferring data and preparing the budget and rate study.

Pinheiro also praised the Parks and Recreation Department team for organizing the city’s first drone light show. The event, held at Noah Jones Ballpark, featured activities like soccer games and movie screenings, culminating in a drone light show that garnered positive feedback. Pinheiro was enthusiastic about the event’s success and noted public interest in future similar events, emphasizing its animal-friendly nature. 

Councilmember Deborah Lewis reiterated concerns about delays in receiving the transient occupancy tax audit results, emphasizing the need for prompt disclosure to the council. She added that software transitions and audits are distinct processes and should not impact operational efficiency.

Councilmember Jones also praised the drone show’s success and noted that the occupancy tax audit is still underway due to challenges in obtaining financial data from private businesses.

Jones also reported that events sponsored by the Los Banos Downtown Property and Business Improvement District, including the annual fireworks show on June 29, coinciding with a farmers’ market.

Councilmember Kenneth Lambert commended city staff for its recent accomplishments and fiscal responsibility, noting that despite necessary expenditures for city improvements, the staff is maintaining fiscal discipline.

Councilmember Douglas Begonia, Jr. expressed gratitude to city staff members for their diligent work, particularly noting the successful drone light show which garnered positive community feedback. He addressed upcoming water rate and wastewater fee increases, noting the predictability of the planned 2.4 percent annual increase over the next five years.

Mayor Paul Llanez also celebrated the drone show’s inclusivity and cost-effectiveness compared to traditional fireworks, especially its appeal to pet owners and those sensitive to noise.

Lanez also talked about the legal complexities surrounding homeless encampments and efforts to open Shaunessy Village Park on De Anza Way, reaffirming his commitment to finding solutions despite legal challenges.

During the public forum, Christian Santos, representing Congressman John Duarte, discussed legislative priorities and support for veterans. Julian Villafana from Assemblywoman Esmeralda Soria’s office announced a senior scam awareness event.

Refugio Llamas provided an update during the public forum on the proposed Highway 152 and Volta Road roundabout and asked the council for updates on homeless initiatives.

Blanche Jorge shared her work with animal welfare organizations and announced the “A Tale to Remember Wine Walk” fundraiser that will take place on Aug. 2 from 6 to 9 p.m. in downtown Los Banos.

The regular city council meeting scheduled for Wednesday, July 3, has been canceled due to the Fourth of July holiday.

Christina Rocha