Southern Californian Fights Water Rate Hike

     SANTA BARBARA (CN) – A property owner in a wealthy coastal California community near Santa Barbara sued his water district for raising its rates, claiming it failed to give customers proper notice.
     The Goleta Water District declared a Stage III Water Emergency and issued mandatory cutbacks, with a target rate of 35 percent savings, more stringent than the cuts required by the governor’s statewide emergency orders.
     Goleta, pop. 30,300, just north of Santa Barbara, has a median household income of $73,271, which is 22 percent higher than the statewide median of $60,190, according to city-data.com. The median value of a home or condo there, $591,948, is 59 percent higher than the statewide median of $373,100. All figures refer to 2013.
     John A. Ruskey, trustee of the Ruskey Living Trust, sued the district in Superior Court, claiming it failed to give proper notice after changing its rates on June 16.
     Ruskey’s Aug. 3 lawsuit claims the district sent notice only to addresses where it provides water, not to the recorded owners of the properties.
     State law defines a record owner as the person or entity whose name and address is listed on the most recent equalized secured property tax assessment roll, and the Ruskey Living Trust owns property in the water district but is not one of its customers, Ruskey says.
     He claimed the water district did not “provide this constitutionally mandated notice” of the fee hikes, which it announced in May , and which were still posted on the Goleta Water District Web page Thursday morning.
     The water district provides service to about 87,000 people through more than 16,600 active accounts and connections. The June 16 rate hikes took effect July 1.
     The lawsuit cites a June 11 report from an outside consultant that recommended a set of rate hikes, and says the water district adopted the rates in its June 16 ordinance.
     The study recommended increasing rates for urban agricultural customers from $1.42 to $1.80 per 100 cubic feet of water, and drought surcharges ranging from $1.57 to $5.73 per 100 cubic feet, depending on the severity of the drought. “Thus, it is possible that an urban agriculture customer’s rate will go from $1.43 to $7.53 per 100 HCF,” according to the complaint.
     Ruskey’s lawsuit does not state what surcharge has been imposed upon his property.
     He seeks declaratory judgment that the water district must provide proper notice to record owners and cannot impose the new fee schedule until it does.
     The June 16 restrictions prohibit watering of ornamental turf on public street medians, allow residential landscape and lawn watering two days per week and watering of commercial, institutional, athletic, golf courses and public recreation areas on two days per week on different schedules.
     Property owners cannot wash their buildings, other structures, sidewalks, driveways, or other hard surfaces with district water, though windows and solar panels may be washed, and surfaces prior to painting.
     Diners must ask for water at restaurants; only fountains that have supported aquatic life since before Sept. 9, 2014, and residential fountains are permitted; and excessive irrigation that causes runoff to sidewalks, curbs, gutters, storm drains or adjacent property is outlawed.
     Violators can be fined up to $500, may have water meter installed with a flow restrictor, or lose their water service.
     Officials for the Goleta Water District did not return a call seeking comment.
     Ruskey’s attorney Eric Benink, with Krause, Kalfayan, Benink & Slavens, of San Diego, could not be reached for comment.
     The address listed on the lawsuit is a 41-acre lot on the edge of Los Padres National Forest. Its use is listed as “orchards.”

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