Oct. 25, 2012
By Kit Stolz, OVN correspondent
In January, the Casitas Municipal Water District (CMWD) made its final payment to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation on a $31 million loan dating back to 1960, primarily for the construction of Casitas Dam.
This November, three of the five members of the CMWD Board of Directors are up for re-election. The biggest issue facing the District is the possibility of financing a bond to take over a city franchise to provide water to approximately 2,400 households currently served by the for-profit Golden State Water company.
The cost of such an eminent domain proceeding is $33 million, according to an initial estimate from Ojai FLOW, the group spearheading the takeover, or possibly much more, according to Casitas.
District 5 includes downtown Ojai and the East End and is currently represented by Russ Baggerly. This race has attracted two challengers. One is Troy Becker, who serves on the Ojai Planning Commission. He is running for the Casitas board for the first time and has called for Casitas to take a more active role in the Golden State dispute.
“This issue has been developing for 10 years,” he said. “It took a group of fed-up citizens to take the lead. Our district representative has done nothing to get in front of this dispute, because the board members see the issue as a Golden State issue and not a District or an Ojai Valley issue.”
Becker, who owns the Ojai Pool Store, thinks the eminent domain deal outlined by the Ojai FLOW group, which would require a two-thirds vote of registered voters within the current Golden State service area, will be beneficial to Casitas and will help keep water rates low for people throughout the valley.
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that this is a good deal for Casitas,” he said. “Right now Golden State ratepayers are paying five to seven times what others in the valley are paying, and that’s a huge concern for seniors.”
In July, the Casitas Board unanimously approved a proposal to spend $28,000 to study the takeover of the city franchise despite assertions from GSW officials that the franchise is not for sale.
Also running for Baggerly’s seat is Jerry Conrow, a CPA who currently is president of both the Ojai Valley Groundwater Management Agency (OBGMA) and the Ojai Valley Water Conservation District. Conrow, an East End citrus farmer, questions the idea that rates would drop after a Casitas takeover of GSW.
“I don’t see how Casitas can run Golden State without additional manpower,” he said. “It’s a stand-alone company. It’s going to have to have its own separate accounting system, its own separate legal representation.”
Conrow believes that if Casitas did take over the franchise, then it arguably could be entitled to two representatives on the five-person OBGMA Board, which he thinks would be in violation of its charter legislation, as well as infringing on the rights of well operators in the valley.
“I don’t think Golden State could sell its interest in the water basin without the state changing the legislation,” he said. “The city of Ojai cannot make such a decision without consulting the farming community.”
Baggerly, who has served on the Board for eight years, agrees that if Casitas does take over Golden State’s Ojai operation, well owners need to be represented. He proposes that every well owner within the boundaries of the Ojai basin be asked to join a “pumper’s club,” and that the group choose a representative to be on the groundwater agency, in lieu of a second representative from Casitas.
Baggerly said that keeping water rates low in Ojai is crucial for preservation of its way of life, both for farmers and for residents.
“If you look at water rates for agriculture, we have some of the lowest rates in Southern California,” he said, pointing to a spreadsheet showing that agricultural rates for gravity-fed water in Ojai were less than half that of a Piru district, about one-third the rates in a Moorpark district and one-fifth the rates in a San Diego district.
“We need to preserve these rates, but the previous administration set rates inordinately low and developed $9 million dollars in deferred maintenance,” Baggerly said. “That’s no way to run a business.”
For Pete Kaiser, who has served as the Division 3 CMWD representative for 10 years, the biggest issue facing the District is the possible take-over of Golden State Water.
“That’s the 1,000-pound gorilla in the room,” he said. “But we’ve got to make sure that should the [Golden State] electorate decide to proceed with the acquisition, that our existing ratepayers not be impacted by any kind of takeover.”
Kaiser, who has served on the area’s Municipal Advisory Council, and on the Ojai Valley Sanitary District Board, has been a resident of the valley for more than 25 years. He believes the CMWD has worked effectively to keep water rates low, to provide a sustainable supply of water and he takes pride in the improvements at the Lake Casitas Recreation Area. He is being challenged by Jeff Ketelsen, who did not respond to repeated calls for comment.
Jim Word, the retired manager of a department store in Ventura, has served as the Division 2 representative on CMWD since 1997. He believes that under general manager Steve Wickstrum the District has done a good job in catching up on deferred maintenance, before it would have resulted in much higher costs to ratepayers. He also sees the desire of Golden State ratepayers to be served by Casitas as a vote of confidence.
“The fact that a goodly number of Golden State ratepayers signed a petition saying they wanted to be part of our organization shows that I think that they feel we’re doing a good job,” he said.
Word is being challenged by Dave Norrdin, who did not answer repeated calls.