Thursday, June 19, 2008

Meiners Oaks Water Rates Hiked

John Brock on his six-acre Meiners Oaks citrus ranch, which has been in his family for 70 years

By Daryl Kelley
Directors of the Meiners Oaks County Water District approved a new budget this week, imposing the first round of fee hikes that would increase the water rate paid by a typical residential customer nearly two and a half times in four years, a boost officials said would still leave the tiny district’s fees the lowest in the Ojai Valley.
New rates would also make the typical agricultural fee about four times greater over four years, a hike some farmers said could limit production or put them out of business.
The new water rates take effect July 1, as the 2008-2009 fiscal year begins.
The immediate impact of the new fees will be modest for most customers — hiking the base rate for residential users from the current $21.20 a month to $28.52 for the coming year. But the fee escalates to $50.41 a month in four years.
For farmers, the hit comes quicker, with the average monthly cost for a customer with a 2-inch meter irrigating five acres spiraling upward from $193 now to $457 beginning next month to $759 in four years.
Customers had a chance to challenge the increases at a hearing on Tuesday evening, but only a handful showed up at the public hearing.
John and Marsha Brock, whose six-acre farm on La Luna has been in the family for more than 70 years, protested the elimination of a long-standing low rate for agriculture.
“My dad set up this board 40 years ago,” said John Brock, who has more than 1,800 producing trees. “There has always been an agricultural rate.”
And Marsha Brock told the board that her family repeatedly gets offers from Los Angeles residents wanting to buy their ranch. With the higher water fees, they may be forced to sell, she said.
“We are going to domestic water, so we can get rid of all the trees, or sell,” she said. “This isn’t what we want … This (ranch) is what Ojai has been all about.”
A water district consultant told the Brocks that under a new interpretation of state law, the district has no choice but to treat all customers equally and charge the full cost of providing service, even if the customer is a farmer.
In all, the district received 91 written protests of the rate increases from customers, far fewer than the majority needed to block it. All property owners in the district were notified of the change in April.
The Meiners Oaks district provides water for more than 1,100 residences, 33 agricultural users and several dozen businesses and institutions such as schools, churches and nonprofit organizations. It draws its water from four wells along the Ventura River, and buys backup supplies from the Casitas reservoir during dry periods.
On Tuesday, directors approved a new $1.04-million budget for the struggling district, relying on reserves because district income fell about $185,000 short of what was needed to pay for basic services and to begin to fix an aging infrastructure. It will be the fourth year in a row that the district has been in the red because of soaring maintenance costs.
Without a sharp fee increase, the district would have been bankrupt in four years, a consultant had warned.
“There has been one rate increase in 24 years,” said board President Bill Reynolds. “The state of the system is in such disarray … we’re not able to balance the budget. We’re trying to catch up.”
Even with the increase, Reynolds said the district’s financial future is dicey, because it is spreading needed increases over four years to make them more palatable, instead of imposing them all right away.
“It hurts us to do this, but we have to plan for the future,” said Director Carrie Mattingly. “We don’t have any option except to go out of business.”
The board delayed a rate increase last November because of the threat of a lawsuit by farmers and taxpayer advocates, who said the district’s budget was being illegally balanced on the back of the district’s few agricultural users.
Officials said the new, simpler proposal is fair and removes any basis for a successful suit.
Since 2004, the district has drawn down reserves from $2 million to $1.36 million to repair crumbling pipes, valves, meters and tanks. It now faces replacement of a failed half-million-dollar water tank and a faulty $40,000 pump.
Even some of those hurt most by the increases — the farmers — said it is evident that a sharp rate increase was needed to save the district, and avert even higher fees from another provider.
But fruit grower Camille Sears said the board is going too far in its four-year hike of agricultural rates.
“I think the first year is fair,” Sears said in an interview. “That’s two and a half times what we pay now. That’s going to hurt. But beyond that it’s ridiculous.”
By Sears’ calculation, she now pays $135 per acre-foot of water, and that would increase to $640 in four years. That compares with $365 an acre-foot proposed by the large Casitas Municipal Water District for farm users and about $445 an acre-foot residential users would be charged under a new Casitas plan.
“So we’ll be paying more than most residences in the Ojai Valley,” Sears said. “It doesn’t make sense. There’s no way any grower I know can afford to pay that.”
So if the rate hike plan of the Meiners Oaks district remains in place for the next four years, Sears said she would pull out her 1,300 fruit and citrus trees and sell them — and perhaps replace them with hardy melons that need little water.
Sears threatened a lawsuit when the original rate increase was proposed last fall, because fees weren’t based on actual service, as state law requires.
District officials maintained that its new, simpler rates would be fair because everyone would pay the same for water, with the difference in fees being based only on the size of a customer’s water meter and how much water is used.
That would jibe with a state Supreme Court decision two years ago 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.
And they said that if things improve during the next four years, adjustments can be made to reduce the hit on those bearing the burden.


Anonymous said...

Don't know what happened to the public water district meetings, but this outcome is proof that more inclusive community dialogue is needed, like the FLOW water citizen response to Golden State Water billing increase. Keeping Ojai valley a small town tourist destination compared to a roadside attraction is wisest use of a finite valley. Also,incorporation of outlying areas into the city open them up to exponential growth further impacting limited natural
resources. Is water district plan to slowly
sqeeze out small family farms for
development? That is the result of
rate increase. On same subject,
it appears that the spraying of Arundo on upper Matilija watershed
is preperation to place luxury housing pads along the very desirable creek channel area. Anyone else notice or is it just my imagination that expensive
homes are taking over valley?PL

Anonymous said...

Further-The water requirements and environmental impacts are things everyone has concerns with, but one wonders why new luxury homes and expensive multiple-unit developments, which planning and council members favor are slated, somehow their impact gets conveniently mitigated or assigned negative declaration which traditionally happens.

Through the growth process and challenging housing demands, one hopes for grassroots guidance and wisdom, like that which has brought many to water district meetings recently to insure that a sane process and plan is in place to meet Ojai Valley growing pains.PL

Anonymous said...

only 91 siginatures. All the sheep are sleeping. Wake up people.

Anonymous said...

anonymous said... only 91 siginatures. All the sheep are sleeping. Wake up people.
June 22, 2008 12:03 PM

you wake up, Chicken Little, there are FOUR TIMES as many houses for sale now in the Ojai Valley as there were in 2005. The houses already built aren't selling, there aren't any "luxury" houses being built.

Vacant retail space and closing business in downtown Ojai, but next time you drive thru Oak View at 50mph think about slowing to 35mph and look at the empty storefronts there, too.

The water districts are not the problem. Ojai is special, but the problems are not. Time for the know-it-all self-styled social activists to wake up. Much better for you to light a candle under the Libbey pergola, that way nothing gets done and you can still feel good about yourself.

Anonymous said...

"June 22, 2008 12:03 PM"
What are you saying?
"Much better for you to light a candle under the Libbey pergola, " Sorry I am not into lighting fires

Anonymous said...

-43.95% Rate Increase Proposed - Golden State Water

-Casitas Municipal Water District imposed a 53 percent hike in the cost to irrigate crops last year- now considering another 17 percent increase


-self-styled social activist

Anonymous said...

The value of water seems to be correlated to the price of oil. The reality is that the very few commodities that we rely upon continue to go up in price. That is called inflation. Our economy continues to sink.

Boarded up buildings in Oak View. I grew up looking at those buildings. Now they're coming back.

Water prices go up. Oil prices go up. The cost of food goes up. Whether you buy it locally or shipped in. Supply and demand.

Anonymous said...

The value of water seems to be correlated to the price of oil.
I recently had someone claim that the minimum wage was correlated with the price of gas.

Some very free thinking goes on in the Ojai Valley.

Anonymous said...

Three years and we will be in a major depression. Get ready you have not seen nothing yet.

Anonymous said...

Whatever you say, Nostradamus.

Anonymous said...

"The value of water seems to be correlated to the price of oil"

So should we not look into
renewable clean energies like water based hydrogen to replace oil? If you're claiming that both
are deliberate price manipulations,
I agree. Otherwise please explain your curious logic and less than convincing post.PL