Controversies at IWD meeting: Citizens come out in numbers

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About 25 people showed up for the Idyllwild Water District board meeting Wednesday night, July 20. Some challenged the board on rates, water meters and transparency. Vic Sirkin (standing, right) gave a prepared speech critical of directors and the manager, and calling for directors’ resignations. Excerpts from the meeting may be viewed at idyllwild towncrier.com. Photo by Tom Kluzak

About 25 people showed up for the Idyllwild Water District board meeting Wednesday night, July 20. Some challenged the board on rates, water meters and transparency. Vic Sirkin (standing, right) gave a prepared speech critical of directors and the manager, and calling for directors’ resignations. Excerpts from the meeting may be viewed at idyllwild towncrier.com.
Photo by Tom Kluzak

Fireworks from the audience occupied much of the public-comment portion of the regular meeting of the Idyllwild Water District board last Wednesday night, July 20. The two-hour, 45-minute meeting was heavily attended by 25 to 30 local residents.
Four main areas of displeasure were voiced during public comment: 1) the failure of IWD General Manager Thomas Lynch to obtain certification from the state as a water treatment plant operator, grade 2, as was apparently required in his contract of hiring; 2) the current refusal of the IWD board to issue new water meters on lots within the district, while still charging these lot owners a standby fee; 3) the higher monthly base rate for those who were required to install 1-inch lines to support the required fire sprinklers systems in their homes; and 4) faulty meters.

1) The general manager’s certification.
Neither the IWD board nor Lynch dispute that Lynch’s initial contract with IWD, which began in February 2014, required him to obtain a Water Treatment Grade II Operator Certificate from the state within his first six months with the district. Nor is it disputed that Lynch still has not obtained that certification, or that the IWD board has not followed up on this.
Idyllwild resident and retired realtor Vic Sirkin raised the issue first, followed by Pine Cove resident Jeff Smith. Lynch indicated that his certification was “pending.” Sirkin inquired as to what “pending” means, and Lynch responded, “Pending means ... pending.” When pressed further by Smith, Lynch replied, “I have taken the exam, and the issue is pending. And that’s all I’m going to say about that, it’s a personnel issue.”
The Town Crier will pursue this issue with a California Public Records Act request to the district.

2) The refusal of IWD to issue new water meters within the district, while still requiring lot owners to pay a standby fee.

Some time ago, IWD invoked its emergency powers under the government code to restrict the issuance of new meters to lots during a Stage 2 water shortage emergency. The district board states that it is doing so to protect the amount of water available to existing users.

Sirkin and realtors Marge Muir and Larry Bishof, along with two of Bishof’s clients, complained that IWD’s restriction prevents the installation of new meters on lots within the district, rendering those lots incapable of being developed, which decreases their property value enormously — making them unusable and unsalable. They argue that IWD’s “no new meters” policy amounts to a decision to restrict the growth of our community, which is not the job of a water district.

Lynch took the position that property values are not a concern of the district. Sirkin replied by asking how it would be if the owners of all such undevelopable properties were to apply to the county for a de-evaluation of their property values and the property taxes they would pay, which thereafter would reduce the property tax dollars the district would be getting from the county.

However, local resident Sue Nash thanked the board for not issuing new meters, which she viewed as protecting the amount of water available to existing customers, such as herself.

The Town Crier will pursue this issue by seeking to learn the numbers of requests for new meters and the percentage of increase in water use that would result from the issuance of those meters.

3) The higher monthly base rate for homes required to have 1-inch meters and lines.

According to IWD, new homes with fire sprinklers are required by law to be fitted with 1-inch lines, and consequently 1-inch meters. IWD charges homes with 1-inch meters $83 per month as a base fee, compared to $29 per month for homes with standard residential 5/8-inch meters and lines.

But local resident Steve Thompson questions why he is paying $54 more each month on his basic charge, just because he has a 1-inch meter and 1-inch lines, which he already paid extra for when they were installed. Thompson points out that his sprinkler lines are static, half filled with glycol and that 5/8-inch lines lead to all other uses in his house, just like everyone else. He further notes that if and when his sprinkler system ever gets employed, he will certainly be billed for all the water then used, as well.

At the board meeting, Chief Financial Officer Shouman and Director Mike Frietas pointed out that Thompson got more “free” water included with his $83 base fee, but Thompson pointed out that he doesn’t use, need or want that extra water — that he doesn’t use any more water each month than his neighbor with only 5/8-inch lines.

Thompson told the Town Crier after the meeting that he met with Lynch the following Monday, but Lynch stated that he could not change the rate for a single user. But Thompson says he is arguing — not just for himself, but on behalf of all persons similarly situated, or who will be in the future — that there is no reason to charge residents an extra $54.

Thompson says he told Lynch that IWD’s rate schedule was simply out of date in that 1-inch lines, and the extra base water that come with them, has made sense for commercial users who use much more water, but it does not make sense for residential users with 1-inch lines, which do not involve more water use.

According to Thompson, after the meeting, Shouman called him to say that Lynch had asked Shouman to price out a study to determine the cost and effect of creating a new rate schedule, which Shouman said would probably take six to nine months to complete, even if they do decide to go ahead with it.

Thompson does not comprehend why a study is necessary, as it seems simple common sense to him that residential 1-inch lines simply do not need or use the extra water that come with commercial 1-inch lines, so all IWD has to do is recognize that and charge residential users the usual residential rates.

The Town Crier will follow up on this issue, as well.

4)  Faulty meters.

Idyllwild business owner Steve Holldber raised a long-standing problem he has had dealing with Lynch involving his water meter. He asserted that the particular make and model of water meter in use in IWD has been rejected by other water districts in other states as being unreliable.

In strongly put protest at the meeting, Holldber said he has dealt with Lynch for years about what he believed were faulty water meters, but was met with various arguments from Lynch insisting that the readings were correct. His meter began registering zero usage. After this had gone on for some months, Holldber says he confronted Lynch with his zero-reading meter. “In a letter, from this guy,” he strongly said, gesturing at Lynch, “he accused me of tampering.” Holldber finished by saying, “You want all the letters? I got ’em.”

At one point during the comment period, Sirkin called for the resignation of board members Jim Billman, Freitas and John Cook, saying they were responsible for perpetuating the problems that he and others have with IWD. He indicated that in the absence of said resignations, the board could expect that recall would be considered. Another attendee at the meeting inquired as to when the next IWD elections would take place, to which Cook replied, “Two years.”

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