Grand Jury Says Lebec Water Rate Hike Legal

By Patric Hedlund

The Kern County Grand Jury on January 27 gave a clean bill of health to the procedure used by the Lebec County Water District to raise rates in 2011.

This comes in the wake of an election for board members in November marked by heated allegations made during campaigning by some of those now elected, implying that the 2011 board was guilty of wrongdoing.

Julie McWhorter, the only incumbent director reelected, candidate Millie Karr and three other new board members rode to victory in a lowturnout election that was marked by the spirit of “negative campaigning” seen in national elections this year.

Allegations were made that customers had not been adequately informed about their rights, sprinkled with hints that “there is a grand jury investigation” underway that would uphold these accusations. It did not.

The report notes that in 2007 water rates “were increased 10% across the board to a base rate of $12.10 for 1,000 cubic feet of water.” In April 2011 the district’s board accepted a water rate study by Provost & Pritchard Consulting Group, and set up a 45-day process for public meetings on a rate increase to $36.30 for 750 cubic feet of water. With legal counsel, the board followed guidelines set up in Prop. 218 to propose a rate increase “to bring the rates to a compatible level with similar water districts. The CA 2020 plan encourages conservation of water…therefore, there was a reduced water allotment of 25%,” the jury said, adding that notices were sent out “in bright yellow envelopes to all parcel landowners” (about 400). Addresses came from the Kern County Tax Collector records and the district’s billing addresses. The proposed increase was also reported in this newspaper. The grand jury verified the authenticity of the addresses to which the notices were sent.

“Prop 218 requires a 51 percent or greater vote for a protest vote to pass. The resulting protest vote was far below” that, the report said.

Former LCWD president Steve Cozzetto, who did not seek reelection, said he appreciates the thoroughness of the grand jury report. He said: “Jack [Ryder], Phil [Aaland], [secretary] Karin [Wilson] and I knew we were doing the right thing in the right way, but it’s nice to have it officially blessed and finally put to rest the lies and allegations. Unfortunately, the… voters in this district chose to believe the lies about the legality of the rate increase process instead of re-electing Jack and Phil who had the courage to do the right thing instead of what would be politically popular.”

The grand jury did not report inquiry into a dispute over action by former board president Bruce Koch and director-elect Bob Karr (current Director Millie Karr’s husband) to connect a private 12- inch water line to the LCWD’s system without a vote of the board in 2010. The line serves the Holiday Inn Express Hotel. Ten days of water service disruption to homes followed shortly after. Koch and Karr resigned quickly when the legality of their actions were sharply criticized by returning board president Darren Hager.

This is part of the February 03, 2012 online edition of The Mountain Enterprise.

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