Directors for the Lake Hemet Municipal Water District gave customers an unusual Christmas gift Thursday evening, Dec. 20. The board unanimously agreed to raise its rates for all customers.

LHMWD has two groups of customers — Garner Valley, and portions of Hemet and San Jacinto. About 240 of the more than 15,000 LHMWD customers live in Garner Valley. But when the issue of increasing water rates surfaces, the Garner Valley customers’ participation in the rate process is significantly greater than its 2 percent of LHMWD customers.

In 2015, the district raised rates for all areas other than Garner Valley. In August 2017, the board began to discuss the possibility of raising rates for its mountain customers. This idea was not well received and the Garner Valley residents requested a special meeting in Garner Valley to discuss the topic.

That Aug.10, the board and staff came to Garner Valley and heard objections to the increase from several local residents.

A week later at the next LHMWD board meeting, Director Rick Hoffman, who represents the Garner Valley area, made a motion to table the rate increases.

“It was a pretty good crowd, and they requested in writing to delay the adoption of the Garner Valley increase,” he said of the meeting at the Garner Valley Common. “Based on the staff recommendation and my thoughts, I will make a motion to table the resolution,” he announced. 

Two months later in December, the board contracted with Raftelis of Murrieta, a consulting firm, to conduct a cost of services study and to propose new rate structures for the entire district, including Garner Valley.

The draft study was presented to the board in September. At the October meeting, the board adopted the proposed rate structure and set Dec. 20 as the day of the public hearing on the proposed rates.

(The new rates and changes accompany this story.)

The rate hearing included General Manager Mike Gow’s discussion of the process and need for more revenue. Habib Isaac, senior manager at Raftelis, described the study.

The justification for more revenue from Garner Valley customers included the annual cost of operating the water service, future capital expenses and a repayment of $1.7 million advance to the Garner Valley customers in 2003, which has not been fully recovered. This piece was the most objectionable to the local customers.

Among the issues Gow said customers raised in protest letters to the district were the topics of efficiency, affordability and the new annual inflationary adjustment.

How the actual protest letters were counted was the other major issue to which Garner Valley residents objected. Proposition 218 specifies that if a majority of the targeted customers, who will pay the higher rates, oppose the change, the agency may not go forward.

Gow said there are 14,795 parcels affected by the new rates. Only 268 protest letters were received before the end of the public hearing ended. Apparently, most of these were from Garner Valley customers.

Since the 240 Garner Valley customers are served exclusively from wells in the valley, the distribution system below Lake Hemet does not benefit Garner Valley customers.

Consequently, they and their attorney, Ginetta Giovinco, of RWG Law in Los Angeles, challenged the district for not treating the Garner Valley protests separately rather than combining them within the whole district.

Several Garner Valley residents claimed 80 percent of the Garner Valley customers submitted a protest. This did not come close to the 50 percent (about 7,400 letters) needed from the entire LHMWD customer base, but it would have been substantially greater than the 50 percent minimum for this unique customer group. 

Giovinco also challenged the district’s ability to claim repayment for a debt ignored for years. She said the state statue of limitations does not permit a 15-year claim. 

Further she argued, as many Garner Valley residents have over the past 18 months, that many residents moved to Garner Valley since 2003 and were not part of the agreement made in 2003.

She urged the board to defer any action involving water rates for Garner Valley until the district has researched these issues in more detail.

Instead, the board voted unanimously to adopt the higher rates, for all customers. The new rates are effective Jan. 1, 2019.