Update (9/24/2013 at 6:17 p.m.): The vote on water rates was a 3-2 decision, not 5-0. Councilmember Greg Sebourn and Mayor Bruce Whitaker voted against increasing the rates.
Fullerton’s City Council meeting on Tuesday saw over 30 individuals participate in their public comment session, and almost all of them criticized the city’s treatment of homeless residents.
On a night when some advocates for the homeless invoked the memory of Kelly Thomas, the majority of their complaints focused on a city ordinance in which homeless individuals and other people sleeping outdoors can be issued fines of up to $2,000 for “illegal camping.”
On a 3-2 vote, council members also approved a rate increase on citizens’ water bills in order to pay for maintenance on water mains and other parts of the infrastructure.
A report from Fullerton Police Chief Dan Hughes stated that the department’s officers issued 59 citations for illegal camping during a seven-week period this past summer, ending Aug. 24, according to the Orange County Register.
Larry Bennett was one of the few speakers who was not critical of government and police policies on homeless residents. He said complaining to council members is unproductive and assisting nonprofit organizations is the best way to help fix the complex problem of homelessness.
“The reality is there just isn’t a simple solution,” Bennett said. “I think we’re looking in the wrong direction; we look to government and say you five up here (the city council) have to solve this problem; I’d turn around and say that we have to solve this problem.”
Bennett said that his auto mechanic complained about homeless individuals loitering, having sex in public and using drugs and alcohol around his neighborhood.
“So the police started enforcing the laws,” he said. “They said you can’t use drugs in public, you can’t drink in public and we will hook you up and we will arrest you.”
Speaker Scott Wilkins said that he was previously homeless for three years. He argued against both the language of the camping violations and Fullerton officers’ implementation of that policy.
“One thing I would like to ask is we take the word ‘camping’ out of whatever obnoxious citations are being handed out to people who are trying to live,” Wilkins said. “They’re not camping. They’re not cooking s’mores, putting franks at the end of sticks, sitting by a campfire talking ghost stories. They’re living, trying to survive.”
Wilkins said that arresting and fining homeless people will not solve the problem. “I’m not going to sit up here and yell at you guys,” he said. “But what I am asking is that you’re proactive instead of reactive.”
He continued by saying that cooperation between cities is necessary to help the entire community move toward solving the problem.
“People are homeless, period,” Wilkins said. “Pushing them out of the city is not going to get rid of them.”
Jesse La Tour, an English professor at Fullerton College, said the issue of homeless people can be a problematic one, but the city and its citizens should still show compassion for them.
“I actually acknowledge and agree with Larry Bennett earlier that the issue of homelessness is complicated,” La Tour said. “However, I feel that there are certain things that we can do, and one of those is to stop criminalizing homelessness.”
When considering the water bill, council members said that they understood the need to improve water infrastructure, but raised concerns over the specifics of the payment and the additional amount of money that ratepayers would owe on their water bills.
“I’m struggling with the wording of the resolution,” Mayor Pro Tem Doug Chaffee said. “I do support the increase, but I want the resolution to be correct.”
During public comment, citizen Tony Package opposed the increases, skeptical that the rates would stabilize after the initial five years.
“We’re just getting this tax, and tax, and tax, and tax, and it’s not going away,” Package said.
The council unanimously approved the plan that would increase water rates starting in October.
The increase would be used to help fund the first five years of a 10-year Capital Improvement Project according to Dave Schickling, Water Supply Manager from the Fullerton Engineering Department.
Among the improvements would be a total planned investment of $18.9 million in water supply, storage and pumping, which would mean Fullerton would rely less on purchased water and would buy 6 percent less water from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California according to the presentation.
$64.2 million would go to improving water distribution mains resulting in less lost water and more reliable service with cost reductions in labor, material and liability. Schickling said it would also address the 80-100 water main leaks per year with over 50 percent of the breaks being significant.