Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Budget, Rate Hike Face New GM At Casitas

By Daryl Kelley
It was a short honeymoon.
Just after the Casitas Municipal Water District hired Steve Wickstrum as general manager last week, he was neck deep in a fiscal swamp that tested his calm nature.
“Within the first 10 minutes we were right into budgets and water rates,” Wickstrum, a 23-year veteran at the water agency, said afterward. “That’s the district’s biggest problem, getting the funding right.”
Wickstrum’s first task was to defend his proposed 2007-2008 budget for the Ojai Valley’s largest water agency, which was based partly on a rate hike of 50 percent next year for farmers.
He did it by focusing on rebuilding an aging waterworks system that needs repair.
But he and the Casitas board of directors also said they would work harder to try to satisfy a State Supreme Court ruling that seems to mandate that all customers, including farmers, pay the full cost of water they use.
Though potentially exposing Casitas legally, district directors indicated they may decide that farmers should pay only part of the cost of the highly treated water they have no choice but to receive. That has been the district’s position for a decade, since a sophisticated treatment plant opened.
So last week, Wickstrum got an earful. And as he responded to farmers’ complaints, the board noted not only his cool, reasoned defense, but his ability to listen – his flexibility when criticized.
“He landed in a very difficult situation,” said board President Russ Baggerly. “And he responded with grace and equanimity under pressure. It’s a mark of his character that he can listen, ask good questions and take part in discussion in a non-defensive way.”
That told the board that they’d hired the right guy from a statewide field of 54 candidates, Baggerly said.
Longtime Director Jim Word, who has watched Wickstrum for more than a decade, said he enthusiastically voted to promote the water agency’s senior engineer, because “he has the ability to take in the situation and find a solution that absolutely works. He doesn’t seem to get riled, that’s for sure. And he’s a down-to-earth person.”
Indeed, Steven E. Wickstrum, 52, has always been a small-town boy.
Born in Kansas, stationed in Colorado as the son of a Navy technologist, and raised in Simi Valley, Wickstrum was the oldest of three children. And he learned to work and set an example.
He was an all-league catcher in high school, who loved the Dodgers and who professional pitchers with injured arms sought out for practice: “Have Catcher Will Travel.”
But in the classroom, he was an average student, so he opted for four years in the Air Force just before the age of 21. The young airman worked in waste water treatment at a base in the South.
“After the Air Force, I had a desire to do better,” he said. “I saw what I could end up doing.”
He was a solid student at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, graduating in 1983, after working as a janitor to put himself through college.
In 1984, he was hired by Casitas as a junior civil engineer, and moved with wife Beth to Meiners Oaks. He dealt face-to-face with customers on meter installations and fire protection. And it took three years to afford a house and begin a family.
Their first child, Alessandra, was born in 1988; his second, Nathan, three years later, about the time Wickstrum became a senior engineer.
Indeed, Wickstrum’s has been a life of work and family, of building a career while coaching his children’s athletic teams and taking an annual family vacation to Yosemite.
He still lives in Meiners Oaks with Beth, a self-employed computer technology administrator, and Nate, who was just named most valuable player on his junior varsity soccer team at Nordhoff, and Allie, a college student and a day-camp counselor at the Santa Barbara Zoo.
“The thing I miss right now is that I’m not coaching,” Wickstrum said. “I coached my kids starting when Nate 5 years old. If I wasn’t coaching baseball, I was fixing the field or umpiring. Allie is also an athlete, a very good swimmer. And at times I’d coach her basketball and soccer.”
With the comfort of this small-town life has come a familiarity. “Everybody knows you,” Wickstrum said.
Indeed, when it was announced that he would receive a healthy pay raise to $167,900 a year with his new job, Wickstrum said the first thing he heard from his tennis partner was a request for a loan.
Then came the farmers’ complaints.
“There were a lot of familiar faces out there,” Wickstrum said with a smile. “It does make you accountable, because we’re working together on these problems. And I think all of the folks know they can just call me up and talk about what’s on their mind, and I’ll give them honest feedback.”
In fact, if there is a hallmark to Wickstrum’s style it may be his forthright nature.
“I’m pretty easygoing and open, very approachable,” he said. “And I think everybody really recognizes that we are one community.”

1 comment:

Painted Hand Farm said...

That's it, stick it to the farmers so they can no longer afford to farm and will sell their properties to developers for more McMansions...just what the Ojai Valley needs.