Jerry Holldber, Pine Cove Water District (PCWD) general manager — “Hill icon,” institution, blowhard, comedian and other names that have been used to refer to him — is retiring Dec. 31.
He has been a Hill, should say Pine Cove, resident for more 55 years of his 67 years. He has been a PCWD employee for more than 35 years, and general manager almost the entire time. During his tenure as PCWD general manager, Idyllwild Water District (IWD) has had nine and Fern Valley Water (FVWD) had four or five GMs.
As those who know him, his longevity is not because he is quiet and shy. He can be blunt and direct, but he knows how to deliver water to his customers’ faucets. In an email, Robert Hewitt, PCWD board president, wrote, “I could never articulate all of the contributions that Jerry has made not just to PCWD but to all the Hill community members.”
Jerry’s family began visiting the Hill in 1962, when he was 8-years-old. Two years later they were living on the Hill. His parents bought property in Pine Cove and built a house for his brother, Steve, and sister, Brenda.
In 1972, he graduated from Hemet High School where he was a well-known athlete. Besides football, Jerry played baseball and ran some track.
Throughout high school, Jerry had various odd jobs to help his family. One of these, a few days with FVWD, was a precursor to his future career. After high school, former IWD General Manager Johnny Wilson gave Jerry a summer job with the district.
Of course, Jerry did not see his future. He said of the work at that time, “I wasn’t too excited about IWD. Other work was plentiful because the town was smaller.”
Despite his initial disdain for water district employment, within a year, he was working full time.
Shortly Wilson left and the new GM, Bill Whitener, and Jerry had some conflicting views. He left, but within another two years, IWD asked him to return. He did and stayed eight more years.
Again, “I needed a change and they were headed in a direction that I didn’t want to be part of,” he said. With water district experience, he applied for positions at PCWD and FVWD.
Both offered him a job, but with a home in Pine Cove, “I had Pine Cove in my heart,” he admitted.
Maintenance was the first work he was assigned. But soon after beginning, the GM who hired Jerry injured himself. The GM returned in a month and left a week later. The board asked Jerry, still in his late 20s, to be field supervisor.
When PCWD began the search for a new GM, Jerry interviewed. “I had learned to read meters. I knew the Pine Cove roads, (from riding my motorcycle up and down the back roads),” he said. So, on July 1, 1986, 35-1/2 years ago, Jerry Holldber, at the age of 32, became the GM of PCWD.
He quickly discerned that this job was not going to be easy and, perhaps, not last very long.
“I started reading more meters and soon realized that many were not recording. We needed to replace 50 to 75 each year,” he lamented. ”What did I get myself into?”
Most of the time, he was putting out fires rather than building resources. “On one street, we were having three to four leaks per week.” he said.
He convinced the board that he could replace the line. He did, but with the night time help of a friend who could weld. “I got it in and that was my first major accomplishment,” he said proudly.
After a few crises of this nature and better knowledge of district data, he came to a frightening realization. The district was quite close to the brink of total collapse.
Every morning he would check the status of the water tanks. Surprisingly, it was always reading full and the water level didn’t change. For days, it was always at the same level. He questioned what he was seeing and checked inside the tank. Although 25 feet tall, the actual internal water level was only 12 to 13 feet.
“The district wasn’t able to sustain the amount of water that the customers needed,” he admitted. And as a volunteer firefighter, he knew the district needed to have water in reserve in case of a fire.
He began a campaign to conserve water and replace the aging meters. Next, he secured a loan to use $600,000 to drill more wells. One is the current Well #16, which is still producing. He also replaced the water tank.
During this time, he established a strong relationship with John Egan, the district’s engineer. Together they planned improvements. Eventually, on their recommendation, the district bought and erected a 1.6-million-gallon tank.
Buying new tanks, replacing meters and pipelines cost money. Jerry knew water revenues were not sufficient to pay for the capital improvements the district needed. This was when he realized that PCWD had property that could generate revenue.
That was the beginning of the Rocky Point Communications site. It became the location of many private cell towers that could serve Hill communities and Hemet Valley; and it generated income for PCWD.
While Rocky Point added revenue to the district’s coffers, it did not and does not fill the whole need. Dealing with insufficient funds to accomplish or to implement his plans was the hardest part of his job. Of the three Hill water districts, PCWD has always had the least revenue and smallest budget.
“It was always a struggle with available money to do the needed improvements. We never had a lot of money,” Jerry said. Planning has been how he adapted to insufficient funds. Just last summer and fall, he developed a 10/20/50 Year Plan he took to the board.
This effort, done in cooperation with Egan, took nearly seven years to complete. “I realized that we needed more money for pipe replacement,” he said. “First I began a study of the actual costs for running the district.”
This was basis for the five-year rate schedule approved several years ago. He has also applied for a $1.6-million loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Editor’s note: To be continued next week.