Water Fight Boils Over in Orange County

     SANTA ANA, Calif. (CN) – Taxpayers sued an Orange County water district, claiming it illegally refuses to put on the ballot a referendum to repeal a rate hike, to protect salaries and maintain control over a scarce resource.
     Kent Ebinger and the Yorba Linda Taxpayers Association sued the Yorba Linda Water District and its board of directors on Tuesday in Orange County Superior Court.
     They claim the California Water Code, which subjects water districts to referendum, obligated the district to either repeal its “outrageous” rate hike or put the issue on the ballot in November. They say they submitted 5,500 signatures – more than twice the number required – but the district refuses to budge.
     “The primary basis for the water district’s refusal to put the rate repeal question to voters is apparently that the petition was circulated as a ‘referendum’ petition and not as an ‘initiative’ petition,” according to the complaint.
     But the plaintiffs’ attorney Brian Hildreth said Californians have the right to repeal rate increases under state referendum laws.
     “The referendum right in California was put into place to keep government bodies in check and to enable [the people] to vote to repeal rates,” Hildreth told Courthouse News.
     “They needed 2,200 signatures, and that’s step one. Now they have to get the voters to overturn the rate increase. If voters feel strongly enough about it, they have the right to do it in California.”
     The taxpayers ask the court to order the district to “exercise a mandatory ministerial duty to either repeal the challenged ordinance in its entirety or submit it to the voters.” And they say the district and its directors “possess no discretion to refuse to comply with their ministerial duty.”
     “Prompt action is required by this court on the instant petition because the water district’s refusal to act violates the rights afforded to petitioners under the California Constitution and the California Elections Code, and prevents the voters from rightfully considering the ballot measure petition at the next upcoming general election occurring in June 2016,” the complaint states. “Prompt action also is required by this court because the significantly increased water rates that are subject of the proposed initiative petition are presently in effect and water users are currently being charged the increased rates.”
     
     Water in California
     The rate increases came in September when the district adopted resolution No. 15-22, which increased some homeowners’ water bill by as much as 200 percent, according to the Yorba Linda Taxpayers.
     “Instead of doing a tiered rate schedule they went with a flat meter fee, and people have different-sized meters, so they are assessing a fee based on the size of people’s meters,” Yorba Linda Taxpayers member Ed Rakochy told Courthouse News.
     He said people with a 5/8-inch or ¾-inch meter previously paid about $10 per month, but now pay more than $26. The average basic monthly service charge has gone from $16.77 to $41.57, according the Orange County Register.
     Some water customers must pay $1,225.77 to $3,212.17 for meters ranging in size from 6 inches to 10 inches, “And that’s before you even use any water,” Rakochy said.
     In April last year, Gov. Jerry Brown ordered the state Water Resource Control Board to set water conservation mandates for every water district in California. Yorba Linda, an affluent community about 40 miles southeast of Los Angeles, was required to scale back water use by 36 percent.
     Water cops monitor home consumption. Going over one’s designated allotment can bring a fine of $40 or more, according to Rakochy.
     The state has been remarkably successful in hitting its conservation targets.
     Officials at the district justified the rate increases, saying they are only doing their job to comply with the state mandate.
     Yorba Linda Water officials say they are only doing their jobs.
     “We want to make sure that we do everything we can to continue to comply with the law and we will do so,” the district’s general manager Marc Marcantonio told the Orange County Register.
     The district said the rate hike was necessary, and will offset only about $5.7 million of a projected $9 million loss in the next year.
     But Rakochy says the district is using the drought as an excuse to pad salaries.
     “YLWD is a bloated government monopoly who overpays their executive staff that works only four days a week,” the Yorba Linda Taxpayers say in a Facebook post.
     “The District is actually paying less for water because we’re using less. Their revenues are not down. They’re making a pile from their administrative penalties for customers exceeding their drought limits. In the last quarter they had $900,000 in profit. This was even before their rate increase kicked in for the whole quarter. Think we’ll see any of this in refunds? Maybe when hell freezes over.”
     Rakochy said the district raised salaries the same day it adopted local drought restrictions this past May.
     “This is about paying their … salaries and benefits in a time of crisis,” he said. “We are in drought, we are under water restrictions; the customers have to clamp down, but what is the water district doing by example? Nothing. In fact, they are paying themselves more. We are an affluent community, but there are also people who are living on the edge. There are seniors who are living on a fixed or limited income.”
     Rakochy said one district employee received two pay raises last year and makes almost $150,000 a year.
     “It’s hard to swallow the argument that they need this [rate increase] to improve and maintain our water facilities,” Hildreth said.
     “We don’t want to limit the district’s ability to raise rates,” Rakochy said. “We are not against that. We are against such an outrageous rate increase. We just want them to go back and come up with a different rate, and we have the right to have them do that under the California Constitution.”
     The taxpayers seek writ of mandate ordering the district to send their referendum to the voters, plus costs and attorney’s fees.
     Attorney Hildreth is with Bell, McAndrews & Hiltachk, in Sacramento.

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