Thursday, November 22, 2007

Water Board Backs Off Hike

Threat to farmers with 500 percent rate hike seen as reason for restarting rate request

By Daryl Kelley
Faced with a legal challenge, directors of the Meiners Oaks County Water District have decided to rethink a proposal that would have raised agriculture rates up to 500 percent, which farmers said would put them out of business.
“There were various people that made various threats of the possibility of lawsuits,” said board President Bill Reynolds in an interview. “Based on that fact alone” there was reason to begin anew a complicated rate approval process, he said.
Before two dozen appreciative residents Tuesday evening, directors unanimously decided to table the proposed new rate structure aimed at balancing the struggling district’s budget, which has been in the red the last three years because of soaring maintenance costs on an aging infrastructure.
“We’re throwing it back in the laps of the Rate Committee, and we’re going to go through the whole process again,” Reynolds told the audience. “I hope we can come up with something that will get passed this time and get us back on track with the budget.”
The district’s 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.
Since 2004, the district has drawn down reserves from $2 million to $1.3 million to repair crumbling pipes, valves, meters and tanks.
Even if the small community-based water agency, which has consistently offered the lowest water rates in the Ojai Valley, had approved the new rates it would have been only the second hike in 15 years.
The new rates would have hiked the base rase for residential customers 79 percent, but the average Meiners Oaks resident would still have paid only $29.50 a month for water, officials said.
Just 10 percent of the district’s 1,283 customers — the vast majority residential — filed protests of the proposed rate increase as a result.
But for 33 agricultural customers, the proposed increases could have forced them to let their trees die, several said in a previous hearing. The farmers’ rate would have increased 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.
But this week, the farmers thanked the water board for its reconsideration of their plight.
Steve Sprinkel, who grows organic vegetables on his 11-acre farm, thanked the board.
“It’s a fantastic gesture,” said Sprinkel, who manage The Farmer and the Cook restaurant in Meiners Oaks. “I’m really impressed.”
Farmer Alissa Varney added: “I’m just thrilled you’re reconsidering your decision.”
And several non-farmers, agreed with resident Bernard Rogers, who said: “My only concern is ... (the rate increase) would permanently alter this community. Ten years from now, it would no longer look the way it does now. The orchards (would be) gone.”
Stephanie Wood, of the Meiners Oaks Community Forum, also supported “keeping the rates fair, especially for agriculture.”
The board gave no hint of how the new proposal would be shaped, but agreed to pay a consultant up to $5,000 to design a suitable substitute — presumably one that would make the rate increases acceptable to farmers as well.
In a hearing last month, the district maintained that its new rates would be 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 would jibe 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 farmer Camille Sears, who said she’d already pulled out 270 of her 1,300 tangerine trees and is thinking of taking out another 300 because of water costs, threatened the board with a lawsuit.
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.
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, the Howard Jarvis Foundation, was ready to jump into the Meiners Oaks fight if the water agency approved its new rates.
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, below $40, she said. “And I don’t think it would put farmers out of business.”
This week, several residents expressed support for Sears’ flat-fee proposal.
“It appears the flat fee would be the most defensible,” said Dulanie LaBarre. “As a residential customer, I support the flat fee and support (allowing) agriculture to maintain itself in this community.”
It will take at least months for the next rate proposal to be noticed to customers, undergo screening at a community workshop and a public hearing.
Sears said she’d take a wait-and-see approach.
“I won’t relax until I see their next proposal,” she said.


Anonymous said...

We are all struggling out here. How about letting the farmers subsidize us for once?

Have you ever tried to water my front lawn? It takes a lot of water, and when I say water, I mean water, a lot of it.

Anonymous said...

"The board gave no hint of how the new proposal would be shaped, but agreed to pay a consultant up to $5,000 " So they are in the red and now they are spending 5,000.00 for a consultant. Please...

Anonymous said...

Thank you Camille Sears for standing up for what is right.

John Doe said...

Meiners Oaks supports farmers. We have enough water here to subsidize the farmers making a profit off of oranges. They also have water wells or they should drill for some if they need water. But oh yeah, it cost money to drill a well and as long as the government gives you a break, you might as well take it.