Thursday, October 18, 2007

Meiners Oaks Next To Raise Water Rates

Meiners Oaks County Water District board Secretary Sherrie Russell, Director Karol Ballantine, board President Bill Reynolds and Vice President Jim Barrett explain to residents their reasoning for a proposed rate increase, which threatens farm users with a 500 percent rate hike. Some have accused the board of piggybacking onto Golden State Water’s recent proposal for a 43.95 percent rate increase within their district.

By Daryl Kelley
Another month, another Ojai Valley agency is hiking water rates to astronomical levels for agriculture. And farmers are saying they’ll be forced to walk away from their orchards if things don’t change.
This time, the Meiners Oaks County Water District has proposed rates that would increase the amount farmers pay to water their crops up to 500 percent or more.
But barraged by angry farmers, district directors delayed a decision this week, citing the absence of one board member. They said they’d make a final decision Nov. 20 when all five directors are present.
“We’re very conflicted right now,” said Director Karol Ballantine. “If this is wrong … we can put a committee of citizens together to come up with an alternative. This (rate change) is not forever. It can be changed.”
But directors for the small community-based water agency, which has consistently offered the lowest water rates in the valley, said they had no choice but to impose only the second rate hike in the last 15 years.
Since 2004, the district’s aging water pipes, meters and storage tanks have begun to break, said board President Bill Reynolds, and officials have had to draw down reserves from $2 million to $1.3 million to pay for repairs. The budget deficit for the fiscal year ending June 30 was more than $500,000, he said, compared with an overall annual budget of less than $1 million.
In previous years, no money has been budgeted for infrastructure repairs, so it is simply falling apart, and will cost millions of dollars to replace, he said.
“At this rate, we have two or three years of reserves, and then we go negative,” Reynolds said. “And we’re not allowed to do that … What we’ve been doing is dipping into the till to cover repairs (of) things that actually get the water to your house.”
Even with a 79 percent hike in its base rate for residential customers, the average Meiners Oaks resident would still only pay $29.50 a month for water, officials said.
Indeed, only about 10 percent of the district’s 1,283 customers — the vast majority residential — filed protests of the proposed rate increase. And just 30 showed up to question the hike in person.
Several of those were farmers, whose rate would increase from 31 cents for each 100 cubic feet of water (748 gallons) to a maximum of $2 per unit on a tiered pricing scale that penalizes those who use the most water.
Farmers said that was not fair, since they have no choice but to water their crops, or to let them die.
“These increases are 500 percent to 700 percent for us,” said Steve Barnard, who farms 20 acres of avocados. “You need to be creative and think this thing through because there’s going to be some real nasty results.”
In an interview, Barnard said the cost to water his avocados would increase from about $7,000 a year to about $40,000. His trees are only five years old, and the freeze ruined his crop this year, so he hasn’t made a profit yet, he said.
“So, with this, I have to make a decision: Do I just turn the water off and let the trees die?” he said.
Another farmer, Camille Sears, said in an interview that she’d already pulled out 270 of her 1,300 tangerine trees and is thinking of taking out another 300 because of water costs.
“I planted those trees, so it’s heartbreaking,” she said. “The farm is my retirement. But now the Water District is saying we’re not sure we can serve you anymore.”
In comments to the board and a nine-page written analysis of flaws in the new rate structure, Sears detailed what she sees as legal problems with the proposal.
The district maintains that its new rates are fair because everyone would pay the same for water, with the only difference being the size of a customer’s water meter and how much water is used.
That jibes with a state Supreme Court decision last year interpreting a 1996 statewide proposition that requires that all water customers be treated equally and that they pay for the cost to deliver their water, district officials said.
But Sears said the district’s notice of its rate increase was so flawed that a judge would immediately strike it down. For example, she said, the district failed even in basic arithmetic, stating that its proposed increase in the base rate for homes, from $14 to $25 a month, was a $9 increase, when, in fact, it is an $11 increase.
And, she said, the district’s method of implementing its increase would be anything but equitable because it would punish the 33 farmers who use nearly one-quarter of the district’s water, and does not reflect the true cost of delivering water to them.
Sears said a powerful statewide taxpayers’ group is ready to jump into the Meiners Oaks fight if the water agency approves its new rates.
“I’ve talked with the people at the Howard Jarvis Foundation and you will be litigated if you go forward with this,” she told the board. “Please don’t make us sue you.”
She offered an alternative proposal: imposition of a base fee of $30 a month for all customers, plus 75 cents per water unit after that. That would raise the extra $230,000 the district needs for repairs each year, while keeping the typical resident’s rate relatively low, she said. “And I don’t think it would put farmers out of business.”
One after another, farmers said that would be the result under the proposed rates.
“A tree just needs so much water,” said grower Alan Walbridge. “This water rate will be up like 10 times for me … This is going to completely put me out of business.”
Other speakers voiced support for the farmers.
“Food security is a huge, huge issue,” said Dulanie La Barre. “We need to be encouraging farmers and community gardeners, not discouraging them … Let’s find something that works better.”
Other speakers, while acknowledging that the district needs more money for repairs, said capital improvements should be underwritten through the sale of bonds, and paid off through property taxes, which are deductible.
In the end, agency directors seemed poised to adopt the new rates.
“I’ve been here 27 years, and this district has been wholly neglected. It’s falling apart. And as we’re speaking, we’re losing money. We’re up against a wall here,” said Director Jim Barrett. “We are, quite frankly, fighting for our existence. “
But then they backed away from a decision until the full board, including absent Carrie Mattingly, could be present.
And one director, Beth Von Gunten, said she wasn’t comfortable with the proposal.
“I’d like to have a chance to go back to the drawing board,” she said. “For agriculture, once you’re down, you’re down. If people stop watering trees, they die.”
Barrett then moved to delay the vote.
But Sears said she was not encouraged by the delay.
“You don’t need a crystal ball to see they’re going to vote 4-1 or 3-2 on this,” she said. “They’re going to ignore my comments. They’re going to blow me off.”

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

If we let them raise the rates now the farmers will suffer. They will be forced to sell there land to developers and we will have more homes here. Is that what we really want? I have lived here for 40yrs and have slowly watched the orange orchards being ripped up and homes put in. I for one love that we have these big breaks of land . It is a shame that the water district for years did not put money aside for repairs. That is there mismanagement and all of us rate payers should not have to cover for them. I am ashamed that I did not get my letter in about protesting the rate increase I will send it in tommorow hopefully others will too. This is our valley and we need to unite to keep it.

Anonymous said...

I agree, this is shameful. The farmers ARE the valley. The smell of orange blossoms in the east end of the Ojai Valley, to avocado trees on your way to the canyon to swim in the summer. They make this valley, have shaped this valley putting them out of business will kill this valley.
What are these people thinking? Are they thinking? What is going on, its like they haven't even thought this process through, do you realize what will happen if all of the farmers get put out of business?

Anonymous said...

This is all part of the plan to drive agriculture out of California and sell off the agricultural land to developers. God only knows what the developers have promised to the people on these small-town water boards to make this all happen, but it's happening. There needs to be a real investigation and some serious digging into the personal finances of the people making the decisions to destroy agriculture in the Ojai Valley and elsewhere.

Anonymous said...

Hey, let's start a list of who's against this all- how can it pass when most of us voted no in Meiners Oaks that got the ballots (hint I had to go down to get one, many of us didn't get them)I am willing to contribute $30 to a legal fund, how about all of you? Also, the reserves are down, but did you notice the color brochures, the new trucks which are never parked there and are at peoples homes?, etc., etc., etc. Repair costs- right. I know of only one broken spot which leaked water for 2 weeks even after they knew about it-they didn't rush to go fix it.

I want to contribute to a legal fund tell me how & where to send it. & remember, we the voters can do a recall election. What's more, how about voting in something new- rate increases only my voter approval, oh and how about adding in all of the H20 Staff as being on the ballot?

Painted Hand Farm said...

At the rate Southern California is experiencing record drought and fires, go ahead and rip up the farm land to build McMansions. Mother Nature will just burn them down. Doesn't anyone realize that Southern California is a man-made oasis? At least those planting olives, citrus and lavender have the right idea.

Anonymous said...

when are they planning to vote on this again?

James Hatch said...

Farmers are the problem in Ojai. Anyone wonder why we don't have water in the creeks? Cause they suck it all out and we have low water tables...all so they can turn a profit at nature's expense. I'm sick and tired of cowtowwing to farmers as if they know what is best. They have abused this valley for long enough, and quite frankly, we don't need them, but need more houses.

Anonymous said...

Lay off that crack pipe, James. Farmers contribute more to you and to Ojai that you ever have or ever will. If you want to live somewhere where there are more houses, go to L.A.

James Hatch said...

Anonymous,
We need more houses. That's all I'm saying, and, Farmers use to much water, hey if the clouds don't bring it, the crop shouldn't be there, right? Oh, and just say no to drugs.

Anonymous said...

We need more houses. That's all I'm saying

It sounds like you need more houses. The rest of us are doing just fine with the population just the way it is.

Get it?

Anonymous said...

The district is losing money and has to raise rates. If residential customers are to subsidize the farmers to enable them to continue to farm, then the question is, what is the right amount?

Anonymous said...

The district is losing money and has to raise rates. If residential customers are to subsidize the farmers to enable them to continue to farm, then the question is, what is the right amount?

I guess that depends on how much you want farmers to continue to subsidize your produce bill, which has obviously been kept artificially low due to subsidized water rates.

However, I suppose if you don't want to support American farmers -- who turn even less of a profit than do people who sell newspapers for a living -- then we can put these farmers out of business and buy all of our food from other countries, and then we can become dependent on other nations not only for our oil, but for our food as well.

James Hatch said...

I like chinese food