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HAPPY HOUSEMATE: With water and sewer bills set to spike, longtime Davenportresident Roberta Smith figures she'll make ends meet by renting out a bedroom.

Cement Boots

Cemex's departure sticks Davenport residents with huge bills

By Curtis Cartier

IN A pastel-toned house just off Highway 1 in Davenport, an 89-year-old man weeps softly into his hands. He says he's worried that if his sewer and water bills jump from around $2,700 to $4,000 per year, like they're scheduled to by the end of July, he'll have to sell the home he's lived in since 1947. A widower with no children, a fixed income and an advancing case of prostate cancer, he says he can't bear to think of leaving.

"I'll go bankrupt," sputters the man, who asks that his name not be used for fear thieves will target him because he lives alone. "I have to pay for my cancer medicine—very expensive. Also, my home insurance, car, and I have to eat. I have nothing left after that."

Each of the roughly 100 households in town is looking at higher bills since the Cemex cement plant closed in January. While in business, Cemex paid about $185,000 per year, or roughly half the cost required for the Santa Cruz County Public Works Department to run a drinking water treatment plant and a sewage system for Davenport residents. Now that the money's gone, town's few residents and businesses are left footing the bill. The results are a 74 percent hike in sewer rates and a 10 percent rise in water rates.

District 3 Supervisor Neal Coonerty calls it a "terrible situation." At the May 25 Board of Supervisors meeting he helped pass a 30-day postponement of the rate increase, but indicates he'll likely approve the rate hikes at the June 22 supes meeting.

One of the few rays of hope is the possibility that Cemex, a Mexico-based company, is still responsible for paying its share of the water system costs, even though the plant is not operating.

"Cemex still has a license to operate, and they still own the land," says Coonerty. "I want to make sure they aren't still financially obligated under the same terms [as when it was in business]. We're trying to explore every option to help."

Built for the Poor

For decades starting in 1905, the cement plant pumped huge amounts of dust into the air that rained down in gray clouds. That dust meant that a poor working family could buy a house in Davenport for cheap.

Luz Fuentes, program coordinator at the Davenport Resource Center, a low-income family assistance facility, says the town's history of poverty means big increases in utility bills are that much harder to absorb.

"People are very worried," she says. "Every time we have a food distribution everyone wants to know what's going on with the water. Most of our residents just can't afford it."

Even if county lawyers find that Cemex is still on the hook for paying ongoing water costs—a claim that, off the record, several leaders close to the situation strongly doubt—it would only be a temporary fix, as the company could give up its permit or sell the land to get out of the obligation. Roberta Smith, another longtime Davenport resident, wants to see a longer-term solution—she just doesn't know what it is. Meanwhile, she's prepared to rent out one of her bedrooms as a way to make ends meet.

"This day has been on my mind for a long, long time," says the 78-year-old semiretired geologist and 27-year local as we sit in the living room of her cramped hillside home. "I think rather than trying to find if Cemex is somehow still responsible, we need to have a system that's more ideal for our community. We just can't keep hoping the cement plant will come back and save us."

Santa Cruz County Public Works director John Presleigh says he's been "kept up all night" thinking about ways to work through the situation. He's excited about the opening of the town's new water treatment plant next month, which benefited from $1.6 million in federal stimulus funds. He says it's one reason water rates are only increasing 10 percent, while sewer fees are going up 74 percent. Still, he says there is no easy solution for what he says is a case of too much cost spread among too few taxpayers.

"There's really no cheap way to do this," he says. "We're continuing to look for grant funding and bridge funding and how we can keep the costs down and still meet all regulatory requirements. What you have, though, is a small community with two treatment plants, and you have to pay to run them."

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